Looking out towards Año Nuevo from the visitor center
Año Nuevo is our main destination today. This is the best time of the year to see the elephant seals because both the females and the males are in residence. The females came ashore in December to give birth to their pups and the males arrived a bit later to start organizing their harems. Between December 15 and March 1 the only way to view the seals is to go on a guided tour which can be pre-booked online. Tom has visited during this time but I haven’t. We haven’t pre-booked but when we were last at Año Nuevo in November we were told that on most days it is OK to turn up on spec, especially for the early tours, because there are often spaces available due to no-shows. I did check the day before to see if we could book but there were no spaces available. Fingers crossed we can get on a tour!
This is the dawn of a new age because I’m using my new iPad for the first time on our travels. Hopefully it will save a lot of time. Before I used to take a notebook and write with a pen and then enter it into WordPress when I got back home. With the iPad and an app called Blogpress I can just sync it up when I get home and editing will be much quicker.
We left home at 6:30 when it was still dark and immediately I became aware of a couple more advantages of using the iPad. For one thing I can write in the dark because the screen is backlit. The second advantage is that every word is readable. A lot of times I would have trouble deciphering my notes because handwriting in a car suffers with every bump, twist and turn.
A thicket on our first little hike. The morning light and dew made it sparkle.
We could tell it was going to be a beautiful day. As we crested the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains we could see no fog at the coast. Ahead we could clearly see the lights of Monterey clear across Monterey Bay – a rare phenomenon for us.
In Santa Cruz we stopped on Mission for coffee. It was called On a Mission Coffee and is little more than a kiosk but they also have a small range of breakfast items. We already had breakfast before we left home so we just bought liquid refreshment this time. Tom had coffee and I chose hot chocolate. We have bought coffee here before but then there was a huge range of magazines for sale at the side. I asked what happened to the magazines and the young girl told us they stopped because it wasn’t profitable.
We made another stop at Davenport Landing. Here there is a small secluded sandy beach. A couple of early morning surfers were already braving the elements and from where we stood they sounded as though they were having fun. A short walk on the beach, a couple of photos and we were on our way again.
There is nothing to beat an early morning drive along this stretch of road at this time of the morning on a lovely day like today. So many photo ops but unfortunately no time to stop again today.
Año Nuevo Sate Park opens at 8 am and we arrived a couple of minutes before. At the kiosk we paid the $10 entrance fee to the park and were given a standby number. We were the first standbys today so have a good chance to actually get on a tour. All guided walks start at the Visitors Center so from the car park that is where we headed. Along the way we paused to watch a flock of quail scurrying around. The males look particularly plump and handsome at this time of the year.
At the Visitors Center we gave our names and were told we would be called if there were still spaces five minutes before the published time of the start. If there were a lot of standbys and spare docents, they would lay on an extra tour.
We had a look around the Marine Education Center. Lots of interesting displays explaining not only the life cycle of events on the beach but also about the dunes and surrounding environment including the other wildlife which abounds here. While we were waiting a docent told us that we would definitely be on the 9:30 tour, which gave us enough time to have a look around outside.
Just outside the Visitors Center is the start of the New Year Creek Trail which we have never been on. This would is a good opportunity so off we set. The trail turned to the left and towards Cove Beach and Highway 1. At the bottom of a steep flight of wooden steps there was a parting of the ways and I kept straight on heading for Highway 1. I was curious to see where it came out. Pretty soon I was walking over an old concrete bridge which was probably the old Highway 1. After about a quarter of a mile of uphill climbing, I reached the main road. From the highway it is hard to spot the entrance to the trail. I retraced my steps to the concrete bridge and could see Tom down on the beach. When I joined him he told me there were a couple of seals on the beach. One was off to the right on the other side of New Year Creek and the other was our side and just around the edge of the cliff. This was a lone bull. The scarring on his back was very pronounced. At first I thought it was dead but by checking with my binoculars I could see that he was breathing so merely sleeping.
Striking a pose. Our first encounter with a young male elephant seal.
By 9:15 we were back at the Visitors Center in order to be ready to set off at 9:30. The earlier groups which set out comprised mostly of teenage students. Our tour though was mostly couples and small groups. At the staging post a park ranger laid down a few rules – no food, not even gum (bottled water is allowed); always stay behind the docent and never get closer than 25 feet from any of the seals. We were introduced to our docent Cheryl Wong. Along the way she dispensed lots of information spiced with humor.
Before we reached the sand dunes, Cheryl stopped and gave us a potted history of Año Nuevo, who discovered it (Sebastián Vizcaíno), the rise, fall and subsequent rise again of the elephant seal population over the years and some background of the Ohlone Indians who called this place home before the Europeans arrived and began to ‘civilize’ them. At a later stop Cheryl went into the life cycle of the seals, what they feed on and how they are able to hold their breath for such a long time under water. She circulated a small piece of hide covered in coarse fur and a whisker. The hide felt a bit rough but the whisker was amazing. I was astounded at the thickness of it.
Elephant seal at Año Nuevo. You actually get pretty close to these guys.
Our first close encounter with an elephant seal happened shortly afterward. A young bull had hauled himself out of the water and was stretched out on the path in front of us. Cheryl said he was about four years old and probably too young to breed yet. Even though we were the required 25 feet away he was aware of our presence and raised his head to look at us. Bulls this age can travel very fast and cover 25 feet in 3 seconds so we were very careful not to disturb him too much. When he opened his mouth to yawn we could see he only had a few back molars but this is quite common. Males start breeding when they are 5 years old and live until they are about 12 years old. Females on the other hand live for about 18 years.
At this point we deviated from the normal path and headed towards the beach over the dunes. We passed several other solitary seals who were basking some way from the shore. We were met by a park ranger – Officer Marty – who called herself a traffic cop. She told the docent which paths to take to avoid disturbing seals. There was another bull but much older than the first one we saw, probably nearly 12. All the while we watched him he didn’t appear to move at all and was certainly not aware of our presence.
We walked to the top of a bluff with a view down to the beach. Here we saw lots of seals – males females and pups. Most were stretched out with
They called this guy, 'Mr. Bubbles'.
just the occasional movement of their fins to scoop sand over their backs. This is to protect them from the sun. The pups stayed close to their mothers and we saw several suckling. Only about 25% will survive their first few months. Some become separated from their mothers, some are attacked by coyotes and some are crushed by the huge males. Once they are weaned and take off into the ocean to fend for themselves they are at the mercy of Great White Sharks and Killer Whales which patrol just offshore waiting to snatch them. Only 25% of the pups born this year will survive to return to this beach.
We did not see any of the males fighting. Cheryl said they were conserving their energy until the females came into season, which happens about a month after the pups have been born. From our vantage place we had a good view of Año Nuevo Island where we could see another colony of seals resting. Many years ago, when the light house was built on the island, it was possible to walk out to the island at low tide. Now, due to erosion, that is not possible and the public has no access to the island at all.
We could not stay too long at this spot because another group was due to arrive very soon. Our next stop was to observe a lone bull in a small pond half submerged in the water. Earlier Officer Marty referred to him as Mr Bubbles and we soon saw why. Elephant seals can hold their breath for a long time and when this male raised to head to take a breath and then breathed out he produced a lot of bubbles. He did this several times and it was amusing to watch. Cheryl said they like to practice holding their breath. When they are out at sea they dive very deep and have to hold their breath for about twenty minutes.
Bull elephant seal courting a female.
Our guided tour was nearly done. Just one more climb to another overlook to see another section of the beach and more seals. This time we saw an abandoned pup that had died lying on the sand. It was distressing but that’s nature. The park rangers only intervene when the problem is man made, for instance if they get caught up in fishing lines. Apart from that they are left very much undisturbed. From start to finish the tours last for two and a half hours. One hour of that is taken up with walking from the Visitors Center to the staging area and back again. For $7 a head it is real good value and today we certainly got our money’s worth due to the fantastic weather. It was a wonderful experience to see the seals at this time of the year.
Our day was not quite over though. We rounded off the day by driving into Pescadero for lunch at Duarte’s where I enjoyed a delicious bowl of artichoke soup and Tom had a cheeseburger with fries and onion rings. Then across the road to Arcangeli Grocery where we bought a loaf of their freshly baked (and still warm) artichoke garlic herb bread. Just one more stop at Harley Farms to buy some of their lavender honey goat cheese before heading home. We took the scenic route along Stage Road to San Gregorio where we turned right onto Highway 84 and headed towards Highway 280. The end of another perfect day.