Elephants of the Sea: Exploring Piedras Blancas Rookery

From last week’s find of petroglyphs near the Piedra Blanca rock formations in Los Padres National Forest (See Pictographs Found), we head to the rocky Pacific Ocean shore of Piedras Blancas Rookery.  

Friends of the Elephant Seal explains the area best: the “Northern Elephant Seal, Mirounga angustirostris, is an extraordinary marine mammal. It spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1000 to 5000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest. The Piedras Blancas rookery, on Highway 1 seven miles north of San Simeon on the California Central Coast, is home to about 17,000 animals.” This number is difficult to fathom.  Yet in visiting the breeding ground, we were able to take in the sea of seals, masses of birds, and even an otter!

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

Unfortunately due to the crowd of onlookers pushing to get a shot with their cameras, smartphones, camcorders, it was difficult not only to glimpse the main Elephant Seal beach but to even get into the main parking lot! Fortunately, a few hundred feet up the road there is another smaller parking area. We easily found a space here, but don’t count on it as this lot filled up quickly too. Get to the Rookery early to beat the crowds. It is definitely worth a stop as you may even witness a pup being born (peak time: mid to late January).

From this parking area, the XplorMor Team explored the dirt coastal trail heading north. As you wind around the headland, the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse comes into distant view from a point directly North. Along the trail, keep looking at the small inlets below as Elephant Seals will be wading, sunbathing, sleeping, molting, birthing or breeding depending on the time of year. A short distance from the parking area there is another large cove with enough sandy shore to host dozens of Elephant Seals. It’s not as large as the main viewing area, but if you wish to avoid crowds, this is the spot. Team XplorMor stood alone watching the seals interact and call out with their amazing sounds.

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

In late November and early December the adult male seals arrive along the six-mile Rookery. Pregnant females join the scene around mid-December. Their influx climaxes between mid-January and early February. Birthing typically begins within a week after their arrival. Once a pup is born, its mother begins calls to impart her sounds in the pups memory, creating a bond so they may track each other easily on the beach. After four weeks of nursing and care, mothers wean their pups and head to sea in search of food to refuel their bodies as all Elephant Seals, except nursing pups, fast while in the Rookery. By March birthing has ceased along with breeding, and adult seals disperse back into the ocean to begin the cycle again. Pups stay in the area another eight to ten weeks before making their way into the vast sea to join the cycle.

It’s amazing to witness this natural wonder. I’m thankful public access remains. Read signage and be RESPECTFUL of the barriers as these are for your protection more than for the seals. Elephant Seals along the shore are there to birth and mate, and are not happy to be interrupted by unwanted visitors. I watched one man laugh as he jumped the border rope to walk amidst the seals, and take “better” photos. He nearly slipped and fell to his demise, and clambered back up embarrassed. I hope that one person does not destroy this gift for all.

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Elephant Seal Rookery by Julia at XplorMor

Friends of the Elephant Seal is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people about elephant seals and other marine life and to teaching stewardship for the ocean off the central coast of California. If there is something you would like to know about elephant seals, or about other marine mammals that inhabit this area, these are the people to contact! Membership is also offered to help support this wonderful cause: JOIN.

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