The best of California is free, from people-watching on Venice Beach to watching wildlife on protected beaches.
Piedras Blancas is one of those gems off Hwy. 1 that’s worth the stop, especially this season.
Here, just north of San Simeon, federal law protects elephant seals, and travelers learn about their habits and habitat from volunteers like Ramona Voge.
Retired from the Los Angeles Police Department, Voge teaches travelers about her blubbery charges:
✓ How fat are these elephant seals? 5,000 pounds max. (We saw a “teenager” that weighed 3,000 lbs.)
✓ How old are they? 25 million years, estimated. The species has been around that long, yet was hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s. (Humans slaughtered these beasts for oil.)
✓ Really, how old? Females live up to 20 years, males about 14. (The males battle, and work harder.)
✓ They look huge — how big are they? Females: About 9-12 ft and 900-1,800 lbs. Males: 14-16 ft and 3,000-5,000 lbs.
✓ What’s the big deal about Piedras Blancas? It’s the largest mainland rookery of elephant seals in the U.S. About 17,000 of these white, grey and brown mammals call Piedras Blancas home, of an estimated total Pacific population of 170,000. Most stay on islands, or rocks in the open ocean.
We estimated there were about 60 of the huge, unlovely elephant seals the day we stopped. Unlovely because that squashed, elephant-like snout gives them a face only a mother would love. (That snout grows to about 2 feet long on males, similar to a human beard, according to Friends of the Elephant Seal, which trains volunteers here.)
But watch them long enough — from a fenced viewing area, above their beach — and they’re actually endearing.
They were resting, Voge offered. They were snorting, snuffling, sneezing and gurgling, rolling over now and then to laze in the sun. Like humans, some dig a little hollow in the wet sand for a more comfortable rest.
A few yawned so loudly, it was comical to watch. It was comforting too, to see such a big community snoring in peace, together. They rolled like puppies at times, tucking in their flippers and lolling, eyes closed, in the sunshine.
Elephant seals seemed to be dozing, yet had enough energy to flip sand over their huge bodies, as protection from sun and insects.
We saw lots of biting and snarling, pre-breeding season. Males are prone to biting and squabbling, while muscling each other over space and females. Juveniles learn to spar at Piedras Blancas, where they’re protected from predators by a dense kelp forest and rocks bracketing their beach.
“They’re terroritorial — they want their space,” Voge said, helpfully. “They’re anti-social. They travel alone.”
It’s the “haulout” season now, when elephant seals are migrating from their foraging areas in the Aleutian Islands, west of Alaska, to winter feeding waters in the Baja.
This is one of the most exciting times to see elephant seals, because pups birthing season continues through Feb.
Pups started arriving in December — 4,800 were born in 2010, Voge said. They’re nursed and weaned here; and will be abandoned by their parents, who fast while on land, but depart in spring to feed again. (Mostly males migrate to the Baja; females head for open ocean and southern California.)
The pups teach themselves to swim, and dive in the kelp forest offshore. At maturity, they’ll dive to amazing depths — 5,000 ft., Voge said — and enjoy a smorgasbord from squid to small sharks.
Fortunate for curious travelers, the pups stay at Piedras Blancas most of the spring, while fattening up for their first ocean journey. Elephant seals have one of the longest, most demanding migrations of all marine mammals: up to 12,000 miles.
More pups mean a healthier ocean for this species and for others. It was only 1990 when northern elephant seals were “discovered” on the California coast by scientists who believed they were near-extinct. (There were enough in Baja that the Mexican government protected them with marine laws as early as 1922.)
By 1992, Washington passed the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act to guard all such endangered and vulnerable species.
No swimming or diving is allowed in these kelp-rich waters; and no exploring is allowed on the elephant seals’ private beach either. Watch from a respectful distance, and learn more from volunteers like Voge.
NEXT: More free wildlife viewing on California coast