Monday, November 14, 2011

A Day at the Beach

Yesterday I left the SF Bay Area and began my coastal trip on Hwy 1 toward LA. The road hugs the beach and rocky outcroppings, offering vistas of the Pacific so riveting that rubberneckers like myself slow down traffic and drift back and forth in the lane like flotsam bobbing in the tide. Before Davenport, near Santa Cruz, I spotted the entrance to Ano Nuevo State Park, home to the largest breeding grounds of the elephant seal.

I learned at the gate that the high tourist season would begin after Thanksgiving when access to the park was only allowed by guided tours requiring reservations and when trams would shuttle tourists to the ocean front. I considered myself fortunate that I would have to trek 2.7 miles each way through deserted marshland and dunes to reach North Cove in order to see these weird floppy-nosed mammals.

From an observation point just above the waterline, I observed several hundred elephant seals hanging out either sunbathing or engaging in water sport. I was told by a volunteer docent that all of these were juvenile males that had arrived in the past week for a brief Winter holiday. Elephant seals travel to these breeding grounds not in pods, but totally alone deep in the sea all the way from the Aleutian Islands. When coming to the surface for air, many fall prey to predators such as orcas and great white sharks. These pinnipeds eat nothing on the whole journey, therefore there is neither poop nor acrid smell wafting about which is usually pervasive with colonies of birds. Unfortunately for these youngsters the trip to this lazy clime and birthplace is for naught since they must flee the beach when the adult males come on shore. A young male weighs only about 300 lbs but daddy weighs 3,500 lbs. Two smaller adults had shown up early and their impressive hulks can be seen in the middle picture. Only a few dominant males ever mate with females so, over the next months, this tranquil scene transforms into a circus of jousting, fighting and uninvited mounting. By April all the 70 lb pups have been born and the time to return to the nutrition rich North begins.

These spots are special to me. I have always loved the outdoors and observing animal behavior. When I was young, my parents took my sister and me often to zoos where we learned of the diversity of the animal kingdom, albeit from behind bars. Yet there is nothing like seeing amazing creatures in the wild. I know that such experiences add value to my daily adventure and a stimulates a profound feeling of wonderment of life itself.


  1. This is such a beautiful post, and the pictures that go with it are incredible. I didn't even know there was such a thing as an elephant seal until I read this fact, when I saw the top picture I thought at first that the sign saying "wild elephant seals" was some kind of a joke. But then when I scrolled through the rest of the pictures and read your post, I realized they were another of those creatures I didn't know existed before.

    I bet you're glad you decided to take the slow scenic route rather than coming down I-5. It's the only way to see the real California. As you've already discovered, it still exists but you have to go out of your way to look for it. (I just flashed on Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance here.)

    Your love of nature and life comes through very clearly in this post, so vibrant and infectious it's a joy to read.

  2. Good timing. If you'd been a little earlier, you'd have misses them. It's wonderful to see this beach and the seals via your camera! What a treat. I love the sign.

  3. Not sure how I missed your post earlier, but it is terrific and I love your photos! Hope your trip is going well!