Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery has become a huge part of San Simeon, and undoubtedly considered by many people the seal rookery one of the biggest thrill on your trip up or down highway 1. Luckily, the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is only a few miles down pacific coast highway 1.
There are two types of elephant seals, one is the northern elephant seal and the other is the southern elephant seal. The northern elephant seal is the second largest seal in the world. Northern adult male elephant seals weigh in around between 3,000 to 5,000 pounds and can grow up to 14 to 16 feet in length. Northern adult female elephant seals weigh in around between 900 to 1800 and can grow up to 9 to 12 feet in length. The young adult elephant seals usually are between 3-4 feet in length and can weight up between 60 to 80 pounds. Typically when people refer to an elephant seal, they are referring to a long distance, deep-sea traveler. They are extraordinary animals that can go long periods without food and are different than most marine mammals because they live in the water but give birth and molt on shore.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery History
According to https://inspiredimperfection.com. Here is a quick condensed version of the history at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery.
- In 1990, elephant seals arrived on the beaches just south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.
- By the spring of 1991, almost 400 seals arrived to molt.
- In February, 1992 the first elephant seal pup was born at Piedras Blancas
- In 1993, about 50 pups were born.
- In 1995, 600 pups were born.
- By 1996 the number of pups reached nearly 1000 and the colony stretched southward and northward to beach adjacent the highway.
- The majority of northern elephant seals return to the original seal rookery in which they were born.
- In between 2014-2015, more than 23,000 elephant seals arrived in the Piedras Blancas
Best Way to View Elephant Seals
Elephant seals can be found at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery in San Simeon. More than 7,000 seals live at the rookery, this is the one of the biggest rookeries on the coast of California. Piedras Blancas is only a few miles south of Ragged Point Inn and roughly 50 miles north of San Luis Obispo and is accessible via highway 1. The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is runs about 6 miles on the coast and you can see more information on the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse at http://www.elephantseal.org/.
Best Time to Visit the Elephant Seals
The most exciting time to visit the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas is in December when males return to the beach to establish their territories. In fact even in late November you can see some of the mature adult males arriving. But subadult and juvenile elephant seals are here so you can see still some elephant in late November.
Pregnant females also begin arriving in December, giving birth within days of landing on the beach. Don’t forget your binoculars and a hooded jacket because it’s often very cool and windy. Adult males are fighting over dominance over pupping areas and usually the first birth is mid-month. In January, females continue to arrive, with birth numbers peaking in the last half of the month.
Piedras Blancas Viewing Areas
The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery is spread out over 6 miles of beach from Point Piedras Blancas on the central coast of california. The best viewing area is located 1.5 miles south of Point Piedras Blancas. The viewing areas are open to the public everyday of the year and don’t worry- there are no fees or reservations of any sort required.
The parking lot is really close from pacific coast highway 1 and has wheelchair access for those who are wondering about that. It is located only a few miles south of Ragged Point Inn.
Viewing Tips and Recommendations
To save you time and effort we collected the best recommendations and rules for you. Do not take your drone, they are not permitted. Do not feed the squirrels, they are sometimes mean! Always park in the designated parking area and remain the in the viewing walkways. Don’t get too close to the elephant seals and remember they are protected by federal law.
Fun Facts about Elephant Seals
According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_seal here are some fun facts.
- Elephant seals spend around 80% of their lives in the oceans.
- Their lifespan is typically 18-22 years
- Adult males weigh about 2,000 to 6,000 pounds.
- Elephant seals are able to hold their breath for over 2 hours, which is the longest of any water-based mammal.
- The skin of the elephant seal molts every year, must be on land to shead old skin and regrow new skin which is why they come back to the beach every year.
- They mainly eat sting rays, octopuses, squids, penguins, and eels. There are two separate species of elephant seals and one of them almost went extinct.
What Is a Rookery of Seals?
A typical rookery of seals consists of a small to large colony of seals. The actual word rookery refers to the nesting place of breeding animals like seabirds or marine animals like the elephant seal. Typically a rookery is where the elephant seal was born. So for example, if an elephant seal was born at the Piedras Lighthouse, they will return here next year after they leave to eat food near the gulf of Alaska.
Where Do Elephant Seals Migrate From and To?
The northern elephant seal is an amazing mammal. They migrate twice and year and travel further than any other mammal in the world. Typically each elephant seal will travel as much as 12,500 miles to each their destinations. When the elephant seals leave their rookery in around March they head up the coast to the gulf of Alaska. Male elephant seals go after a different prey to female elephant seals. Male elephant seals typically go after small sharks, small to medium sized fish and stingrays which in comparison female elephant seals eat mainly squid. Males generally end up at the north end of the gulf of Alaska and the female elephant seals typically end up near the south end of the gulf of Alaska. The male and female elephant seals stay at the gulf of Alaska until it is time to back to their respective rookery which is around spring time and summer time.
Do Elephant Seals Have Any Predators?
In the ocean, elephant seals are at the top of the food chain because of their size and tusks. However there are a few predators that are known to attack elephant seals: killer whales and white sharks. Elephant seals use their size and tusks to protect themselves from these large predators and they are also really loud which helps to scare away other predators. Typically the newborn or pup elephant are prey for other mammals like sea lions and leopard seals.
Where Are The Elephant Seals In California?
There are many rookies along the California Coast but the are only a few viewing locations. Below are the two locations where there are public viewing locations other than Piedras Blancas.
Ano Nuevo State Park
At Ano Nuevo State Park you can view elephant seals year around. There is a variety of plants and natural views that attract visitors from all over California. Typically there are up 9,000 elephant seals throughout the year which makes it the biggest population of elephant seals in California. There are also great hikes and physical terrain you can explore here. In terms of the elephant seals there are public viewing areas as well as guided tours. The viewing point for the elephant seals is about 3 miles long and you can visit between 8:30 am and 3:30 pm. Due to the nature of the time is takes to get to the viewing spot, you cannot enter past 3:30 pm.
Point Reyes National Seashore
Another sanctuary for elephant seals is at the Point Reyes National Seashore. From 1970, there has been a huge return of elephant seals to the area. The elephant seals can be found near Chimney Rock. During the weekend, there are binoculars and staff available to answer questions with you. There is a bit of a hike to get to the viewing spots so typically during the high season (January to March) there are shuttle buses that take you from the parking lot near Drakes Beach to the viewing locations. They limit your viewing time to no more than 30 minutes and they recommend staying at least 60 yards away from the elephant seals. For more information on Point Reyes and how to see the elephants, click here.
Here is a picture California where you can see the exact spots where there are elephant seal rookies.
Birthing and Breeding Season
The majority of the birthing season is from early Winter and lasts until Spring. Typically the female elephant seals are arriving to the rookery to give birth and once arriving on land, within a couple of days births will happen. Interesting enough, the typical newborn seals are born at night and weigh around 50 pounds up to 280 pounds. After the newborn seal is birthed, the mother will stay and nurse the young seal for almost a month (around 25 days). After nursing the young seal and getting him or her up to speed the mother elephant seal will mate with the alpha elephant seal (called a "bull"). After she mates the alpha elephant bull, the mother will say goodbye to the young seal and go back to the sea. The young elephant seal will learn to swim and find food by himself. This is a process which many young seals will learn the "ropes" and once they are ready to take the plunge into the ocean, they take off into the sea around late April.
If you are wondering when the molting season for elephant seals we have you covered. The molting season for elephant seals typically starts in April and lasts till about the end of May (4-6 weeks). Most of the females and smaller juvenile elephant seals molt on the shore. Typically each elephant seal will stay on land until the molting in complete and then they will go back in the water once completed. Most the adults and juveniles are done with molting by the very end of May and are happily back in the water splashing around. If you are wondering if males molt, the answer is yes. In June, the males and "teenager" males go back to the rookery and start their molting process. Typically by August most the adults and teenage male are done with molting. During this period (August), is when you will see the least amount of seals in the rookery.
This is the annual schedule for the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
January - the young female elephant seals arrive on the shore. There is a peak of birthing that occurs in the last 2 weeks of the month
February - The elephant seals continue to give birth at a rapid rate. When the females have their babies they typically leave.
March - The very last adult elephant seals are leaving during this period.
April - The young female elephant seals return to their place of birth to molt. See the above paragraph for more information on molting
May - The molting season really begins this month.
June - Most of the male juveniles and adults return to their place of birth to molt.
July - The juvenile and adult males are molting during this period.
August - The very last of the molting is done in this month. At the end of August, most of the adult elephant seals have left.
September - The very young elephant seals (male and female) return to their place of birth to rest.
October - Same as September, the very young elephant seals return to their place of birth to rest.
November - The juvenile elephant seals are leaving this month while the male large adult elephant seals begin arriving towards the end of the month.
December - The large adult elephant seals continue to arrive and this is also when the adult females arrive and the first births of the season typically happen mid month.
Background of Elephant Seals
Not many people know that at one point elephant seals were hunted to near extinction. The reason was because whales were becoming scarce and fishermen needed an alternative source for blubber. Because of this, fishermen turned to hunting elephant seals instead of whales. By the early 1900's there were an estimated 100 elephant seals left in the entire world. It was estimated that all 100 of those elephant seals were found off the coast of Baja California in Mexico. The story does have a happy ending. Mexico declared the elephant seal an endangered species and provided them with safe haven. To date, approximate population of elephant seals is over 150,000 with the great majority of the elephant seals near California waters. That is why we're seeing so many elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. We should consider ourselves lucky that we're able to see the elephant seals and especially in such close driving distance for those near the California central coast.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
At the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, you must check out and view the elephant seals first and foremost. But there are also stuff you can do around the area. For example, there are a few hikes in the local area you can do, you can visit the William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach, you can go to the friends of the elephant seal gift shop or you can visit the Hearst Castle Historical Monument in San Simeon.
Piedras Blancas Light Station Natural Area
Close to the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is the Piedras Blancas Light Station Natural Area which is located about 1.5 miles north of the elephant seals viewing location. Interestingly enough, the lighthouse was established in 1875 and to date people love to visit it because its of it's history. There are tours of the lighthouse and the surrounding trails which include some views of the elephant seal colonies. You should visit the Piedras Blancas Light Station Assocation for more information on the light house tours.
Ragged Point Inn
Bottomline: If you are in Big Sur come visit the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery and stay at the Ragged Point Inn.