Elephant Seals at San Simeon
Elephant seals in Central California – They came to visit in 1990 and have stayed ever since. You can find them on Highway 1, just north of San Simeon and Cambria near Piedras Blancas point and lighthouse and they’re fascinating to watch. Docents will explain as much or as little as you want about these marine mammals.
A male elephant seal curiously eyes a passing bird
Northern elephant seals (mirounga angustirostris), the variety that frequents the Central California coast, are quite the curiosity. The females have the fetching regular seal look to them, the pups are exceedingly cute and full-grown males have a long snout. Some portion of the population is able to be found year-round on the beach just off Highway 1 north of Cambria and San Simeon and just south of the lighthouse at Piedras Blancas.
San Simeon Elephant Seals Rookery Quick Facts:
GPS Coordinates: (parking areas) North: 35.66462, -121.26163; South: 35.6630, -121.2568. Both parking areas are on the ocean side of Highway 1. The docents can be found at the southern parking area.
Male elephant seals: Up to 16′ long and 4500 pounds. The Northern elephant seals are a bit smaller even than the Southern species. The southerns are the largest members of the Family Carnivora.
Female elephant seals: Up to 12 ‘ long and vary between 1000 to 2000 pounds.
Range: Along the coast – the non-breeding range extends from the Aleutian Islands to the southern end of Baja California. Breeding – from Northern California south to Baja California and on the Channel Islands.
Radio and satellite tracking has shown that the seals venture far out into the northeastern Pacific ocean for their feeding; basically between the Aleutian and Hawaiian Islands.
The elephant seals are very deep divers, exceeded only by sperm whales. They regularly dive to 2000 feet and have been recorded at 3000 feet! They can stay down for 2 hours.
Interesting biology: 20% of their body weight is made up of blood. For humans it is 6%. They also have a very high concentration of red blood cells which hold oxygen enabling their long and deep dives.
During the breeding season in the winter, there can be more than 5000 individuals along the beach here.
It wasn’t always this way. Not long ago, before 1990, there were no seals visiting this stretch of the coast. Then, without warning or invitation, they started coming. Not that anyone really minded, as they were so close on the narrow beach that it seemed that you could reach out and touch them.
And they are fun to watch. Don’t expect them to be very active though. With the exception of the pups, they are fasting and conservation of energy is of high concern to them.
This is wonderful as this species came fairly close to extinction in the late nineteenth century due to careless harvesting for use as oil rendered from the blubber. Scientists now estimate the population of the southern elephant seal at 170,000.
A very cautious bull and his harem.
Some males have over 100 females in their harems.
Seal “beach party” at Piedras Blancas
In the photo above, you can see roadway of Highway 1 at the edge the bluff. This is the route just before it reaches the southern portion of Big Sur.
The first few years that the seals visited resulted in quite a mess. There was no real parking area and people were blocking the roadway. Some of the more enthusiastic, but ill-advised among those early visitors thought it was a good idea to wander down to the beach among very large and very wild animals. And some of the more adventurous juvenile seals thought a little “inland excursion” would be fun and were scooting across the road to the horror of drivers.
A bunched-up and sleeping group of females and pups
That mess of the early years has all been sorted out now. There is a nice large turnout and two parking areas; fences to keep the seals and humans separated and a group of docents to answer any questions you might have about this interesting marine mammal.
There is also a boardwalk along the edge of the bluff leading from one parking area the the other.
Adult males exploring the question of dominance
As mentioned earlier, there is almost always some part of this group on the beach. This is very accommodating for the traveler as there will usually be some seals to see.
Click on the photo below for a larger size to see who’s on the beach now…
Seals hauled out and resting on the beach in January
The Friends of the Elephant Seal have some guidelines on their site which will ensure a pleasant visit for you and the seals.
A few of these guidelines are:
- Park in the designated areas and not on the roadway;
- Even in summer the coast can be cool. Be sure to have a windbreaker;
- Stay away from the seals;
- Keep your dogs leashed, under control and away from the seals.
Now, you may have already been through Central California and have a great vacation photo and a story to go along with it.