A walk to the elephant seals
Año Nuevo

Neil Wiley

Punta del Año Nuevo (New Year’s Point) hasn’t changed much since it was sighted in 1603 by Don Sebastian Vizciano. It is still wild, undeveloped and home to elephant seals, sea lions and other marine animals that rest, mate and give birth in the dunes, on the mainland beaches and offshore islands. The Ohlones and the grizzlies are gone, replaced by more than 200,000 tourists each year. They come to the one mainland site where the public can see elephant seals in their natural habitat.

It’s worth the short hike. In the prime month of February, you can expect to see about 2,000 mothers, 2,000 pups and 1,000 bulls. And you see them up close and personal, sometimes from as close as 25 feet. When asleep, even an alpha male doesn’t look very dangerous, but more like a rolled up Zodiac raft or a large pile of rubber raincoats. A kid on our tour asked, "Is that guy dead?" Then the big male lifts up a head full of carnivore teeth, shakes his two-foot long proboscis and trucks his 5,000-pound body toward us. Now he looks more like a runaway Chevrolet Suburban, only heavier, lower and with bigger teeth. But don’t worry. The ranger says they have never lost a tourist.

Then the bull lets out a gurgling, bellowing honk—a rumbling roar like the lowest base note of a defective pipe organ. There is no other sound quite like it. He is challenging another male. The two males rear up, chest to chest, and begin a biting, pushing, often bloody fight. It ends quickly, often with a bite on that funny-looking nose. The winners get to mate with 25 to 50 females, as many as 200 times. The losers keep fighting to establish the pecking order of dominance.

Meanwhile, females are warning alpha bulls that other males are around. Mothers and pups are calling to each other. Gulls and ravens are screaming over afterbirth. And tourists are crying, "look over here, look at that." It is nature in the raw—fascinating, real and without compassion.

People are sometimes confused by this "un-Disney-like" reality. They ask where the elephant seals are kept at night. And who sweeps the beach.

Yes, the beach is strangely clean. The bulls and cows fast for months, never eating while they are at Año Nuevo. And afterbirth and dead pups are eaten by the gulls and ravens.

The surviving pups grow fast on fat-rich milk, from 60-90 pounds at birth to as much as 300 pounds in a month, but they are forcefully weaned when in March the mother simply abandons her pup for the ocean. The pups slowly learn to swim and fish, then also go to sea. In May, the adult females return to molt. Adult males visit to molt in July and August. By the end of August, most males and females are gone. Yearlings "hang out" during the fall. Males begin returning in November, followed by females in December.

It’s about a 45-minute drive down Highway 17, then up Highway 1 to Año Nuevo. Watch for the sign north of the San Mateo County line. Parking is $2.00 (seniors, $1.00). Advance reservations are required. February is a popular month, so make your reservations ASAP.

From December 15 to March 31, only guided walks are available. Cost is $4.00. From April through November, you can walk on your own, but you’ll need a hiking permit to enter the wildlife protection area. For reservations, phone 800-444-4445. Note: Weekend tours are completely booked. For general information, phone 650-879-0227.

You pick up your ticket at the visitor center, a short walk from the parking lot. A ranger assembles the group to leave at the designated time (every 15 minutes from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.) You walk on your own about three-fourths of a mile over relatively level ground to the staging area, where you are met by a docent who guides you through the protection area. The 1.5-mile tour through the dunes takes about 2.5 hours. Vans are available to take handicapped visitors to the staging area and a view site.

After the tour, you return to the staging area. As you walk back, you can turn right on the Pond Loop Trail that takes you to a large pond, Cove Beach Trail, and back to the Visitor Center. You should see many birds, including large raptors such as the northern harrier and the red-tailed hawk in the large meadows, and giant pelicans, gulls and other sea birds along the beach. Watch out for crumbling cliffs and incoming waves.

Further up the coast, you can take trails down to the beach in the Año Nuevo State Reserve. The Año Nuevo State Park across Highway 1 is still undeveloped, but you can hike into Big Basin from Waddell Beach, or go north to Gazos Creek Road and visit Butano State Park.

No hike is complete without food. I recommend stopping by the Davenport Cash Store and Café. They have great "Whale Watcher" corned beef hash, giant hamburgers and stick-to-the-ribs clam chowder. For dessert, you might try their bread pudding or flourless chocolate torte. I wanted to try them all, but I kept thinking of my growing similarity to a bull elephant seal.

Honk. Honk.


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