Where Can You See Wildlife Right Now: Elephant Seals At Point Reyes National Seashore

Winter is prime time to spot elephant seals at Point Reyes National Seashore. NPS photo and map.

It could, perhaps, be viewed as the wildlife equivalent of Beach Party, the 1960s-era series of beach-based movies featuring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Only in this case, the beach at Point Reyes National Seashore is covered by elephant seals, not hormone-crazed twenty-somethings.

These huge seals -- males tip the scales at up to 5,000 pounds and then some -- draw their distinctive name from the large snouts sported by the males, according to Friends of the Elephant Seal.

While they spend the bulk of their lives out at sea, elephant seals head down to the California coast, and Point Reyes National Seashore, in the winter to breed. Last winter, for instance, thousands of sea elephants hunkered down on the seashore's beaches between December and March. At one point, in early February, there were 1,451 elephant seals counted on the seashore's beaches.

After being absent for more than 150 years, elephant seals returned to the sandy beaches on the rocky Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. In 1981, the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. Since then, researchers have found that the colony is growing at a dramatic annual average rate of 16 percent. When severe storms occurred in 1992, 1994, and 1998, many pups were killed. During the El Niño winter of 1998, storms and high tides washed away approximately 85% of the 350 young pups before they had learned to swim. Nevertheless, the Point Reyes elephant seal population is between 1,500 and 2,000. Fanning out from their initial secluded spot, the seals have expanded to popular beaches, causing concern for both their safety and that of their human visitors.
Viewing elephant seals at Point Reyes is a big winter pasttime. According to park officials:
From December through March a breeding colony of elephant seals can be observed from Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock, above beautiful Drakes Bay. The males are the first to arrive here, in December, to stake out a claim on the beach. Then pregnant females begin to arrive and soon give birth to a single pup. Subadult and juvenile animals arrive and the colony can number close to one hundred animals.

From the Overlook you can witness the fascinating behavior of these animals, including male dominance contests, birthing of pups and the interactions of mothers and pups. You will hear the distinctive vocalizations of females, pups and the powerful trumpeting of the adult males (bulls) which can be heard for over a mile.

For weekly updates through the winter on the seals, check out this page.