So Many Elephant Seals

It was a chilly but sunny day last week when we had the fortune of spending time with a colony of elephant seals.

There are only about a dozen spots in the world where northern elephant seals breed, and Point Reyes in Northern California is one of them.

They spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land for breeding.

At Point Reyes, the bulls (males) arrive in December and the cows (females) arrive in January.

The pups had recently been born and there was a bonanza of excitement on the day we visited, with this colony numbering over 120 individuals spread out across the short beach.

There were mostly mothers and pups, and a couple dozen bulls made their presence known.

There were orange barricades up, keeping people at a distance to protect the seals; and this sign, below, with the seal count. We were on the southwest side of Drakes Beach at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.

Always with elephant seals, the first thing you are instantly aware of is their gargantuan size. The bulls are noticeably larger, but the cows are also formidably large.

Quick Facts from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration:

Weight: 1,300 – 4,400 pounds (590-1,996 kg)

Length: 10-13 feet (3-4 m)

Adult male elephant seals have a large inflatable nose, or proboscis, that overhangs the lower lip resembling an elephant trunk, thus its name. The proboscis is his tool for amplifying sounds in female competitions.

Mirounga angustirostris nearly went extinct in the late 1800s from over-harvesting. Their blubber is oil-rich. They had been absent from Point Reyes for more than 150 years; then in the 1970s elephant seals returned to the Point Reyes beaches, and in 1981 a breeding pair was discovered.

They are protected now and the California population is continuing to grow at around 6% per year.

More info:

Northern Elephant Seal Wikipedia and Northern Elephant Seals National Park Service

As of last week, the mothers were still nursing and the pups, in that newborn way, were demanding, screaming.

You can see in the two photos below they are dark black and wrinkled, having been recently born.

This pup, below front, has learned how to sit up.

The pups would scream and whimper for a few minutes, and then figure out how to get over to their mother for sustenance.

The mothers were laid out, soaking up the sunshine. I liked watching this mother, below, who was apparently hot. Every once in a while she languidly dug her front flipper into the sand and swept some cooling sand onto her back. You can see the morsels of sand on her back and the depression she has made in the sand on the right.

You can also see her whiskers in this photo (above). Living at sea for most of their days and foraging at great depths, elephant seals use these whiskers (aka vibrissae) to fish in complete darkness, sensing the location of prey.

Often a little itch was scratched with the flipper claws.

The bulls were fun to watch too. Occasionally one would awake and prop himself up, lifting the front of his body, and proclaiming his superiority with a territorial roar or two. There were rumblings and roars that always turned my head.

But every single time I watched, it was all more bluster than anything. They are so heavy and awkward on land, they would plop across the sand for about three steps and then collapse, lay back down and go to sleep.

I’ve read that males have brutal fights in their hierarchical society, but we were witnessing a different stage of life when there were few males and the females were busy with pups.

There was an overflow lagoon where a few males swam around. You can see a male in the photo below, just right of the center.

This male, below, hauled out of the lagoon and found himself a comfortable spot in the parking lot.

Crashing waves, brisk winds, briny sea aromas, and squawking gulls are all a thrill when we go to the beach on a winter day. Watching active elephant seals–roaring, nursing or squealing–and it all makes for an absolutely super day.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

76 thoughts on “So Many Elephant Seals

  1. How wonderful!! The little one are adorable.

    It’s been ages since I walked among the Elephant Seals down near Santa Cruz. The males are HUGE!
    What a delightful day you had! Thanks for sharing these wonderful images, and telling us about it. I had no idea they had a breeding ground up there too.

    • How delightful that you have seen the elephant seals, Deborah, and I am happy I could introduce you to the Pt. Reyes colony. Really fun creatures to share the planet with. My warmest thanks.

  2. Dear Jet and Athena,
    thanks a lot for all the info and pictures. The elephant seals seem to be quite different to the grey seals we have here and even bigger.
    Keep well and happy
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. You guys have a great spirit of adventure and are so lucky to witness such a magnificent scene. So glad their population is growing and not declining.

    • Yes, it is wonderful that the population is growing instead of declining. Part of it is that they are out at sea a lot, part of it is that we don’t need their blubber oil anymore, and a lot of it has to do with protecting them. I really appreciated your kind comment and visit today, Bill, thank you.

  4. There’s something about seeing the mothers and babies of these unusual species that’s heart-warming. I feel the same about alligators. They have such a reputation, and yet mother alligators are absolutely tender with their babies. The photos showing these young snuggled against their mothers are charming.

    • I agree, Linda, it was really special to see the mothers and pups together here. Some of those pups were so recently born, too. Always a pleasure to have you stop by, Linda, thank you.

    • Yes, it is very exciting, Wayne, as you can imagine. It’s about a 2-hour drive to get there, but we’re going back again next week because it is just so fun. I love that you set up your trail camera in different places to record the wildlife activity, and can imagine the frenzy the wolves had feasting on the washed-up carcass. They are so massive. My friend, always a joy to have you stop by, thank you.

    • Hi Andy, yes, that first photo of the elephant seals looks at first like a lot of logs and rocks on the beach. I liked your comment and am glad you visited here, thank you.

  5. It sounds as if it was a feast for all the senses! How fortunate you are to have Pt Reyes so near. There’s ALWAYS something exciting to see there! Thanks for sharing your many adventures there.

    • I have great memories of several visits to Pt. Reyes with you, Nan, and especially our most recent one last October. The same day as the elephant seals we watched a coyote hunt and eat a gopher right in front of us, on that same road we were on with you and B. More about that another time. Meanwhile, I hope we can take you and B again to Point Reyes, always a joy. A joy to have you stop by here, thank you.

  6. Fantastic roundup of this wonderful place, Jet. Your research and commentary is always illuminating. Great photos from Athena to accompany. It is a thrill to witness their behaviors and to see the pups. One time at Drakes Beach, we saw an epic bloody battle between two males. Pretty hard to watch, but I managed some good photos and video. The ranger who was there said she’d never seen anything like it. I’m grateful for the protections in place for these fascinating creatures. Great post. 🙂

    • Oh wow, I loved hearing about your experience at Drakes Beach, Jane, witnessing the bloody battle between two males. I can imagine it was not pleasant to watch, scary. They’re so big and loud. I’ve seen fights between the males, but not a bloody battle. And I’m with you in being grateful for their protection and resulting population increase. I am glad you have had many joyful times at Pt. Reyes, Jane…we love our Pt. Reyes. Big smile and many thanks.

    • I like that fun white board, too, Val, with the elephant seal count and hand-drawn pictures, and indeed how wonderful that the population is strengthening. Loved your happy party emoji too. My warmest thanks, Val.

  7. A big day out in every way! What a delight for you both to see these giant wonders (and the smaller but soon to be larger babies!) I really enjoyed this – thanks to you both for sharing!

    • I liked your words for the elephant seals, pc, “giant wonders.” It describes them well. It was great to be on the seashore and so thrilling to see them. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, pc. I always enjoy going to the shore on your posts, so I’m happy I could bring you to our shores. Big smiles to you and Mrs. pc, and thanks.

  8. We don’t have them much around here, certainly not on the beaches, but on his way up the coast of BC, the Captain once saw one in the water. It was a rare sighting for these parts. What I found fascinating about elephant seals is that they can go so deep under water. They can go down as far as a mile under water and can stay under for 20 to 60 minutes. I find that simply amazing.

    • I liked hearing about your husband’s sighting, Anneli, and I too find it fascinating how long the elephant seals can stay under water. The females especially dive very deep. You might find this interesting, Anneli, I cut and pasted it from the National Park Service Pt. Reyes website: “Elephant seals differ from humans in that when they dive, they carry all the oxygen they need in their blood rather than their lungs. Before diving, elephant seals exhale; collapsing their lungs so there is little air to be compressed. As they dive, the seals fat is also compressed so that the animal loses its buoyancy and sinks, allowing it to achieve great depth with little effort.” Always wonderful to have you stop by, thank you.

      • Thanks for that extra info, Jet. I wonder if it’s hard for them to get back up to a depth where they regain their buoyancy once they’ve done their deep dive. They must be getting tired by then. I find it so fascinating how they can do these feats that we would consider superhuman if we could even attempt them.

  9. Peggy and I visited Drakes Bay a couple of years ago when the elephant seals were in, Jet. I agree. What fun. Fascinating. Beginning my visits to the area in the late 60s,I’ve watched with awe as they have returned from near extinction. Thanks for the post on these magnificent animals. –Curt

    • It is truly awe-inspiring, as you say Curt, to watch the elephant seal population get stronger. And how great that you had a chance to see them at Drakes Bay. We’re going back again next week because it is so much fun and usually they’re farther away and harder to see when they’re hauled out at Chimney Rock. Thank you.

    • Yes, it is horrifying, the male elephant bulls fighting. We were down near Hearst Castle at the beach off 101 once and it looked like they were going to crush the nearby pup. Thanks for your comment, Jan, and always a joy to “see” you.

  10. Geez, up to 4,400!! This is so informative!! I love elephants, I love seals, and I love elephant seals. Think they’ll let me kiss their noses? I have that terrible addiction to animal noses. Lizards, frogs, fish, all of them! It’s so bad, Jet. But with the furry ones. It’s on the top, right there where the fur meets the nose. Seriously, I can’t be the only one. And now I know elephant seals have adorable noses too. Thanks a lot!

    • Hi Dawn Renee, the elephant seals do have adorable noses. Fun hearing about your love for kissing animal noses. And I’m happy you stopped by and enjoyed the elephant seals, thank you.

  11. I’ve seen these not in California, but in islands in Peru’s Pacific coast, They are huge and noisy, Always enjoying themselves under the sun. Thank you, my friend. 🙂

    • I enjoyed your contribution to the elephant seals with your experiences seeing them in Peru, H.J. They are indeed huge and noisy and enjoying themselves under the sun. That sums it up nicely. My warmest thanks to you, H.J.

  12. What a great day out you had. Being all sealish myself, I would have loved to join you.😍🦭
    Thank you for the fascinating roundup with great photos, Jet and Athena. My, they are truly enormous!! Makes the Grey Seals on our coast look quite small. The pupping season is over on Blakeney Point and we had a record breaking number of 5000 pups being born.
    Do you have many visitors disturbing the elephant seals? Seing the cones, how close can you get to them?
    Greetings from a seal 🦭warden in Norfolk,

    • It was a delight to receive your comment, Dina, thank you. I liked hearing about the record-breaking number of your newly born grey pups, how super is that! I loved the seal emojis too. Yes, the beach where this colony hauled out, Drakes Beach, is very well protected from visitors. They close a few roads until 10am and put up loads of barriers completely barring anyone at a distance of 25 feet (8 m). There were also about a dozen volunteer docents to maintain control and answer questions, and several signs up asking people to keep their voices down. I really appreciate that you are a seal warden and I really appreciated the knowledge and time and kindness that the docents at Drakes Bay bestowed. It is a great and important service. I remember your excellent photos of the gray seals too. My warmest thanks to you and the Fab Four.

      • Thank you for this extensive update, Jet. The voluntary work sounds familiar to me and I appreciate the good work involved to protect the elephant seals. There are so many dedicated people investing time and offering to share their knowledge and inform the public to protect wildlife all over the world. It was good to learn more about Drakes Bay! Our very best wishes to you and Athena. Xx

    • That elephant seal in the parking lot cracked us up, too, Craig. It’s a sandy, fairly steep hill to get up there from the lagoon, but apparently he thought it was worth it. He had the need for isolation which I totally understand. A joy, Craig, thanks for your visit.

  13. Good knowing these once nearly absent seals have happily returned
    to somewhere healthy and great for reproduction. Point Reyes provides
    everything they need to call ‘home’! Thank you for the fine photos
    and sharing all the news concerning them Jet.

  14. This reminds me a lot about the elephant seals we saw at Año Nuevo State Park a few years back. It’s amazing how evolution has created these giants, and how they have come back from near extinction.

    • I am happy you have seen the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo, Hien. That park is the largest mainland breeding colony for the no. elephant seals, and a very lovely park. And I agree, it is absolutely amazing how the elephant seals have been rescued from becoming extinct. We are lucky to have the joy of sharing this earth with them. Many thanks for your visit, my friend.

  15. Thank your for this fascinating account! We had no idea that massive, inflatable snout of theirs was called a proboscis. It makes us think of butterflies, their retractable “snout” has the same name.
    All the best from Strasbourg, France
    Stephanie and Jerome

    • I’m really glad you enjoyed the California elephant seals, Stephanie and Jerome, thanks for visiting and commenting. Yes, you are right, the proboscis on the elephant seals is the same as on butterflies and other mammals and insects. Hello to Strasbourg.

  16. 4400lbs is incredible! I had no idea seals could be so large. It’s no wonder they flop around on land; I can’t imagine how else they would move such large bodies without legs. Must be a sight to behold (and hear).

  17. Those pups are adorbs!! I’ve seen a few videos of the males doing their manly things, but never seen this side of them – well, the nurturing side – they look like they are enjoying the days in the sun.. and who doesn’t ha. Used to see a few seals (different variety, definitely smaller) at the Wharf in San Fran on my many business trips to that city – those days are done now so I don’t get out there any more. Not even sure if they are still hanging out there, something tells me they had moved on, not sure. Thanks for once for sharing another wonderful experience.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the elephant seals here, Brian, it is fun sharing this spectacular mammal. Yes, the sea lions at Pier 39 in SF are still there and very comfortable with their domain. They told me to say hi to you. Cheers, my friend.

  18. What a wonderful post about elephant seals, Jet. Very lucky you and Athena were able to see them as they aren’t common everywhere. I like that Welcome sign with the drawings letting you know approximately how many seals are there. And there look to be many of them. They do look enormous, and like they are enjoying their time in the sun. It seems like they can crawl and make their way anywhere, judging by the one on the road in the parking lot. Beautiful captures all round 🙂

    • I am so very glad you enjoyed the vicarious visit with the elephant seals, Mabel. Yes, they are a creature we don’t often see, so I was happy I could share them with you. My warmest thanks for your visit.

  19. I’ve only seen a few harbor seals lounging about on the rocks and islands off Acadia N.P. It would be a real delight to be close to so many of the big Elephant Seals, Jet. Although maybe not an olfactory delight. 🙂 The babes are so cute.

    • Oh yes, Steve, it really is a treat to be so close to a sizeable colony of these large marine mammals. I did not notice any foul smells; the strong ocean winds may’ve helped. I have never been to Acadia NP and liked hearing about the harbor seals you saw there. My warmest thanks for your visits yesterday.

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