Elephant seals are not something you see every day unless of course, you're on the California coast where their numbers are increasing. This in no way diminishes the feeling of seeing one or an entire herd of them. Their numbers were decimated to an estimated 100 in the late 1800s but had rebounded to 170,000 by 2006 with close to 2000 pups born each year. Males can reach 14 feet and weigh up 5000 lbs with females considerably smaller. Perhaps most amazing is they have been recorded to dive as deep as 5000 feet to feed on squid, rays, and even small sharks. These dives generally last 20 minutes but they can remain submerged for 2 hours.
We saw a good size group of Elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Rookery which is just north of San Simeon and south of Ragged Point, the generally accepted beginning of the Big Sur area. There were lots of young growing pups which you could view from a platform for free. It was particularly amazing to us as we had not read anything about it and just stopped as we saw a bunch of cars parked.
Spring is a great time to explore Big Sur. With the warmer weather of summer, fog can often result due to the temperature difference between the air and the always cold Pacific so Spring's coolness can be an advantage. Another bonus is the wildflowers that carpet the hills like blankets of different hues, making for a patchwork of color rising from the various blues of the ocean.
Sea lions are always favorites at zoos and seeing them in the wild is even more amazing. It's easy enough to do driving along the California coast, with their abundant and growing numbers. Just keep your eyes open and you are bound to run across some. Lost on most is their size, males can grow to 8 feet and overly 600 lbs! Females are much smaller and lighter in color so easy to identify.
We were just enjoying the views of the lighthouse and its surrounding rocky outcroppings when I noticed this pod of sea lions. They are very intelligent animals and the one seemed to be looking right at me through the zoom as if she “knew” I was snapping photos of her.
There are only two places in California where you can view the elephant seals: Año Nuevo State Reserve (north of Santa Cruz) and Piedras Blancas (just outside of San Simeon). We chose Piedras Blancas to see the seals because Año Nuevo is so busy you must reserve a spot weeks in advance and they charge a fee for a guided tour, with no self-guided tour option.
At Piedras Blancas the seals are visible from two main parking areas between the lighthouse and the entrance to Hearst Castle. There are also a few small pull-offs and trails north of the lighthouse that allow you to avoid the tourists and fences to view a smaller number of seals (from a safe and respectable distance of course).
Our first stop was at one of these small pull-off area with a walking trail to the water. Here, we were the only visitors in sight, and we got to enjoy a view of some 20 seals, mostly females and pups unrushed and uninterrupted. After about 30 minutes we moved south to the first of the two paved parking lots which also was the less busy of the two. From here you can see dozens of seals up close, with the bulk of the seals off in the distance maybe a half mile away and surrounded by throngs of tourists.
Elephant seals were thought to be extinct in the 1950s, but have since recovered to approximately 100,000 individuals with all of the breeding colonies in Mexico and California. The group at Piedras Blancas first arrived in the 1990s, and now numbers about 7,500 and is growing at a faster rate than the older, 5,000-member colony at Año Nuevo. These elephant seals are massive creatures, with average meals tipping the scales at 4,000 pounds.
The towering Coast Redwoods have a range that extends from the Oregon-California Border south to Big Sur, the southern limit. Though the trees around Big Sur aren't tremondously tall or imposing, they're still redwoods. If you hike around the area, you're sure to see at least a handful of big ones that reach over 150 feet or so. That said, if you're looking for redwoods, it's still better to look up north (e.g. Big Basin, Marin Peninsula).
During the months of October until March, Pacific Grove plays host to about 65,000 migrating Monarch Butterflies as they winter all the way from Canada in the mild microclimates of the area which are the only places to host certain trees that the Monarch seems to like. Here they feed and mate before their long journey home, laying their eggs along the way to create the next generation of Monarchs…
The best place to see them is at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary, where they spend much of the morning spreading their wings soaking up the sun’s rays until their wings are sufficiently warm to take flight. This is a great time to catch them as to see them swarming in the air is a beautiful sight.
It takes these butterflies about four weeks to go from eggs to chrysalises to birth, feeding, mating, laying eggs and migration. For me the most amazing thing is that the butterflies that reach Pacific Grove in autumn are the fifth generation, or the great great grandchildren of the butterflies that set out from here in the spring before – how do they know where to travel???
These Butterflies are fiercely protected by the local population, there are even special butterfly wardens to look after them and educate visitors.
For more information you can visit the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History and the Pacific Grove Public Library, which are next to each other on Grand and Central Avenues.
Piedras Blancas is a place where elephant seals come ashore and form colonies. THey only do this a few months of the year to give birth, breed, and molt. We happened to be there at the right time---Jan.
A quick drive along the coast from Hearst Castle is the home of one of California's largest populations of elephant seals. There are around 7,500 here and it is a year round home for the seals. Highlights include seeing females giving birth to their young, huge males battling for mates and young pups frolicking in the surf!
The best time to visit is around January/February when the females birth their young and the mating begins, peaking around Valentine’s Day (what a romantic lot!). The elephant seals can be visited from 8 am to sunset all year round.
There are often guides in blue jackets on hand to allow visitors to get up close and personal with these amazing animals. This is an excellent opportunity to observe these remarkable creatures in their native habitat and along the viewing areas are a number of excellent educational and informational signs.
The beach is easily spotted from the highway with ample parking and we had a fabulous time watching the seals doze in the sun and sand, and watch as one female became bad tempered and started chasing other females off around her with loud raucous barks.
The beach is maintained by the ‘Friends of the Elephant Seal’, a non-profit organisation dedicated to educating people about elephant seals and other marine life. Their office in San Simeon is located in Plaza de Cavalier and it's a great place to get more information, gifts and other goodies.
This makes a great stopping off point on the Big Sur drive!
One last word of warning is that these seals should under no circumstances be approached closely on the beach as they are wild animals that are prone to vicious attacks if felt threatened! Male seals can weigh at 5,000lbs - do the maths!
There are many, many things to do while you're here in Big Sur. If you have plenty of time to spare, you can even lay on the beach and watch for whales and dolphins...
If, however, you are pressed for time.... then drive through quickly.... En route, you can stop your car at some scenic look-out points and take some memorable photo shots for your album! :-)
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