January 17, 2012

It's Elephant Seal Viewing Season at our Local MPA: Ano Nuevo State Park

A visit to the Wildlife Protection Area at Ano Nuevo State Park during the winter months feels like you’ve stepped right into a film project of the Discovery Channel. With a northern elephant seal colony into the thousands, Ano Nuevo is a place unlike any other here on the Central Coast.

In fact, there are only a few places on earth so special that elephant seal colonies return year after year to breed and give birth, and we just happen to be lucky enough to have one of them some 25 miles North of Santa Cruz on our famed Highway 1.

Ano Nuevo is also a Marine Protected Area!
This means the ecosystem is protected, thriving, and monitored.

The number of northern elephant seals in the Pacific Ocean used to be in the hundreds of thousands, but after being harvested at a devastating rate in the 1800s for their oil, less than 100 remained in the entire Pacific Ocean by 1892. But luckily for the elephant seals as well as us wildlife enthusiasts, both the Mexican and U.S. governments gave elephant seals protected status in the 1900s, and their numbers have been on the steady rise ever since.

The first northern elephant seals were sighted on Ano Nuevo Island in the 1950s, and because of the nutrient-rich waters right offshore, the protective sand dunes on land and the isolation of the small island offshore, Ano Nuevo State Park has become a mecca of wildlife viewing for visitors from around the world.

The most popular time to view the elephant seals is during breeding season, which runs from mid December to the end of March. It is during this time that the females give birth to their pups, the giant male "bull" seals (some weighing up to 8,800 pounds!) battle each other for breeding access to the female harems, and the mothers nurse their pups until returning to sea sometime in the month of March.

And while January and February are considered the peak season for viewing elephant seals in their natural environment, a visit to Ano Nuevo in the month of March, and especially early March, is still an exciting time to step into your own real-life version of the Discovery Channel.

It’s important to note that because the northern elephant seals are humongous, sometimes aggressive, federally protected and often even a little bit moody, visitors to Ano Nuevo between Dec. 15 and March 31 must accompany a trained naturalist on a guided wildlife hike to view the animals. This naturalist-guided walk is the only way you can reach the wildlife viewing area, and the only way you can access the elephant seals in their natural habitat.

It’s a beautiful, 3-mile hike with a finale unlike any other, and reservations are usually an absolute must. I still share stories to this day of my first visit to see the elephant seals at Ano Nuevo, an experience I wouldn't trade for the world.

So with the Pacific gray whales migrating south through the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary right now, and the northern elephant seals colonizing at Ano Nuevo State Park, winter on the Central Coast is an incredible time to experience wildlife right in our own backyard.
You can make reservations online at anonuevo.reserveamerica.com or by calling 800-444-4445.

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