One of the great things about traveling to far away places is the opportunity to see things you couldn’t back home. Different sides of life… or even different kinds of life. I have always been a lover of wildlife, and I take great pleasure in new or unique encounters. I was fortunate enough to see my first desert kit fox while in Joshua Tree, and one of the biggest factors luring me back to Pt. Reyes was a little label on a park service map that read “Elephant Seal Overlook.” As it turned out, I wouldn’t have to go that far to experience an even better viewing opportunity.
I was just past Cambria driving north along Highway 1 when I saw a sign announcing an elephant seal viewpoint ahead. The afternoon was already slipping away and I debated rather or not to stop. Admittedly, I didn’t know a thing about elephant seals and wondered what the odds of sighting one on some seemingly random beach might be. I’ve driven thousands and thousands of miles around this country, and rarely is there actual wildlife to be found at roadside viewing areas. Generally, the chances of seeing anything are of the coin flip variety, right on par with seeing a deer within a “Deer Crossing, Next __ Miles” zone, and I usually respond with a similar attention span. As I approached the turnout, however, I noticed quite a few cars in the parking lot so I decided to pull over and check it out.
I was actually quite excited to walk over and join a small group of visitors at the edge of the parking lot, look down, and see about a dozen elephant seals on the beach directly below. That excitement quickly gave way to shock though, as I pivoted my head and realized there were hundreds of the blubbery beasts crowding the shoreline, a half mile in either direction. What I had unwittingly stumbled upon was one of the west coasts finest mainland rookeries, at the height of birthing season.
I quickly went to work with my camera, but all the while had to marvel at this unique scene. What bizarre, amazing creatures these are… the pups look kind of like black, legless pit bulls and the adult males have faces like something right off of Star Trek. The females seem calm and docile, lying there nursing and flipping sand over their backs; but become easily aggitated when pressed for space. The pups squawk and whine and the large males bellow and posture themselves in displays of dominance. While the animals appear blundering and awkward on land, they are actually quite graceful in the water and dive to depths of thousands of feet while searching for food in the open sea.
For more information on elephant seals, take a look at the Friends of the Elephant Seal website. This group had friendly volunteers on-site at the overlook to answer questions and educate the public, and they provide a wonderful service out of respect for an animal that was once nearly hunted to extinction. And if you’re ever cruising the California coast just south of Big Sur, allow yourself an hour or so to stop and enjoy this scene. I’m told the elephant seals can be found on this beach anytime of the year (though not in great numbers through August and September) and it’s a very cool experience that you won’t soon forget.
Here are a few of the photos I captured while visiting on the afternoon of January 7, 2013.
For those of you who are new to this blog, this post is part of a series from a western road trip I took in December 2012 and January 2013. Feel free to scroll back through previous entries to see some more great California images from places like Joshua Tree and the Redwoods, and stay tuned for future posts from Point Reyes, Yosemite, Death Valley, and more.
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