Seal-breeding season at Año Nuevo State Park draws thousands of visitors

 

Every year from December through April, Año Nuevo State Park is host to approximately 10,000 elephant seals, who come to the park’s sandy beaches to breed and give birth before returning to the sea and swimming up the coast by British Columbia.

Unlike the seals by San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf that Bay Area residents may be used to seeing, elephant seals are much larger. Male seals tend to be 14- to 16-feet long and weigh up to two-and-a-half tons, while female seals are 10- to 12-feet long and weigh approximately one ton.

Soon after the elephant seals arrive on land at Año Nuevo State Park, female seals beach together in “harems” and give birth to their pups that were conceived in the previous breeding season. Each female typically gives birth to one pup and nurses them for approximately one month, after which the female is ready to breed again for the next season.

During this time, male seals fight quite violently in order to determine which one of them is the “alpha,” or dominant seal, with the most breeding rights. While “beta” males may also try to breed with females, they can only do so while the “alpha” seal is otherwise occupied — such as when he’s taking a nap.

During this breeding season, Año Nuevo State Park receives approximately 35,000 visitors — half of their visitation for the full year — and offers several guided walks daily with docents and park rangers. Visitors are not allowed to roam around the park by themselves because elephant seals can be quite dangerous if provoked.

According to docent Bill Haas, although the park is now home to several elephant seals, their numbers had dwindled to less than 100 by the early-1900s because they were hunted for their blubber. Once the government began regulating elephant seal hunting in the mid-1900s, though, the numbers increased. Today, there are approximately 160,000 elephant seals, although the population still isn’t what it used to be pre-hunting.