Not far from the high-tech epicentre of the Silicon Valley is a place where year after year, nature plays out on the sandy shores of Año Nuevo Natural Preserve.
From January through the month of March, anywhere from a thousand to ten thousand northern elephant seals come ashore to give birth and mate, with males frequently engaging in impressive battles for breeding rights. By early March, most adult seals have returned to the sea while the pups stay behind as they grow and learn to swim. Guided nature walks to Año Nuevo Point are offered, allowing visitors to see and experience the elephant seals in their native surroundings, from a safe distance, of course! The walk meanders over 3 miles of undulating sand dunes and marshlands out to the Point, taking about 2 and a half hours round trip.
Soon after, female and juvenile seals will return to the beaches of Año Nuevo for molting season, which lasts from April 1 through August 31. During this time, self-guided walks are allowed with a free permit.
Again in autumn, a more limited numbers of young seals come to the preserve as part of their early development. These one to three year old youngsters come and go during the ‘fall haul out’ period lasting from early September through late November.
Elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction by the end of the 19th century but their numbers have rebounded, thanks to their protected status under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) passed in 1972.
These sizeable, earless creatures get their name from the elephant-like trunk of the male seals, which are used to make roaring noises during mating season. Elephant seals can hold their breath for up to 100 minutes, a handy adaptation for a species that spends up to 80% of its life in the ocean much of it diving to great depths in search of food. Elephant seals only come onto land during key periods, such as mating and molting seasons. Male northern elephant seals can reach lengths of 14 to 16 feet and weigh up to 5,400 pounds.
Though entertaining to watch, elephant seals are wild animals and are extremely dangerous. It is recommended to keep your distance, never getting closer than 25 feet, especially during mating season when the bulls are exceptionally aggressive. Under the MMPA, it is prohibited to harass or in any way disturb elephant seals.
Año Nuevo State Park is open from 8:30am to sunset daily and, in addition to hosting the elephant seals, offers a variety of natural and cultural resources. A lovely drive from anywhere in the Silicon Valley, it serves up a unique blend of geography, including a serene coastal prairie, wetland marshes, dune fields and of course, the beach. Located on Highway 1 about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, there are also a number of local places to stop for lunch or dinner in nearby Davenport and Pescadero.