Carla Brennan's Blog

Reflections and Photos from The Big Trip and Beyond . .

Elephant Seals Rough-housing!

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Elephant Seals Rough-housing!
Pescadero, CA

Eliza (my niece) and I went to Ano Nuevo State Park, Pescadero, CA, to check on any elephant seals that might be there. July is when the males arrive onshore to molt. The females are currently feeding far out to sea; they molt in the spring.

I warned Eliza that all we might see were big inert lumps of furry blubber lying on the beach. Like sacks of sand. Not very exciting really. But we were pleasantly surprised to find plenty of action. Juvenile and mature males were engaged in play fighting. Quite entertaining! There were brawls both in and out of the water with lots of strange guttural gurgles, grunts and groans. With their fur coming off, some of the molting seals looked like characters from “The Walking Dead.” Hollywood make-up artists take note.

Observe the difference in the size of their noses. For elephant seals, size matters when it comes to their schnoz. During breeding season in the fall, the fighting will no longer be play and will draw blood as they fight over who gets to rule the harem.

On our way out to see the seals (a 1.5 mile hike), a docent at the small “staging area” cabin pointed out several mud-constructed cliff swallows nests. Parents were flying back and forth with insect meals for the growing chicks. We also witnessed a mother California quail with her large brood of chicks crossing the trail in front of us. At first we saw 2 or 3 babies, then 6 or 7, then 9, 10, 11! A male, possible the father of this group, was acting as sentry atop a bush, looking for predators. Fortunately, we didn’t qualify. There was also constant bird traffic traveling between the small fresh water pond and the ocean. Streams of brown pelican flew overhead. The most unusual sighting was a San Francisco garter snake, retracting into the grassy meadow, with a mouse in its mouth!


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Photography from Ano Nuevo State Park, CA, Sunday Jan. 27, 2019

On Sunday the weather was splendid and Chris and I decided to go to the coast. Living among the big redwoods, especially in winter, can make the entire day seem dark, even when the sun shines. I suggested we go to Cove Beach at Ano Nuevo State Park. I thought we would forego the elephant seal colony that resides on a beach about a mile from the visitors center and instead meander to the closer Cove beach. You need a reservation to visit the seals and it was mid-afternoon by the time we got there. We were unlikely to get permission to make the walk to the colony.

But we were lucky to discover that six immature males (adolescents 1-4 years old and sub-adult males 4-7 years old) had fled the “designated” area and were lounging on Cove Beach instead. The designated area is roped off and monitored by docents while at Cove neither the seals nor the humans were supervised. A sign said to stay at least 25 feet from seals but it seemed I was the only one who had read it.

These young males had probably escaped the colony to get a reprieve from being harassed by the mature males. The occasional bands of curious humans that came close to them probably seemed benign compared to their older aggressive brethren. They lolled on the sand in massive blubbery lumps occasionally lifting their large heads and improbable proboscis noses to eye the two-legged strangers. As you will see, sometimes discerning the features of their head and faces amid the lumps and bulges was challenging. It can be hard to know what you are looking at. They can seem bizarre or as Chris said, “kind of gross.” The seals were huge, probably close to 10 feet or more in length.

One elephant seal found comfort in the coolness of a salt water pool formed by the last high tide. Most of the time, he looked dead, inert, and sleeping or a least resting with his head submerged. But periodically he would resurface and stretch, blow bubbles and yawn, creating strange and amusing poses.

Also included are two photos of common fossil rock strewn on the beach. They are Purisima Formations from the Pilocene period.

California elephant seals made the national news the same week I made this post. Here is a CBS newsclip:

Here is a video Chris made of the bubble blowing elephant seal:

Please do not reproduce any photographs or videos without permission. If you are interested in purchasing a photograph, contact Carla at:


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The Birds and the Bees and the Elephant Seals

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The Birds and the Bees and the Elephant Seals.
February 27, 2018.
Ano Nuevo State Park, Pescadero, CA.

The last time I visited ANSP (and created a post about elephant seals) was four years ago. At that time I vowed to visit several times a year. I have failed at that but with my latest visit I have renewed my intention to frequent this special place. Go to the park website here for more information:

To come here is a significant commitment of time, at least 3-4 hours (plus over an hour driving). I felt called to go on the 27th and see if I could get into a scheduled tour. (You must be on a docent-led tour to see the seals.) The ranger at the kiosk said a tour was leaving in 5 minutes so I made a beeline to the visitors center to purchase a ticket. Our group had only three people (there can be up to 25) so this tour was more personal and spacious than most. Two of us carried long heavy telephoto lenses on Canon cameras.

After the long walk to the rookery, we found a variety of elephant seals strewn inert across the dunes and beach. Females, sub-adult males, adult males, nursing pups and weaners (pups who have finished weaning and are no longer attended by their mothers.) Many of the seals had already left for their 5 months at sea before they return next summer to molt all of their skin and fur.

A few pups were still nursing, cloaked in black fur to absorb heat from the sun while they fattened up from the thick rich milk. The weaners were no longer black but silvery. Some were so well fed that they looked like sausages about to burst their casing.

Little was happening except grunts and squeals and occasional sand flipping. Then the action started.

The alpha bull directly ahead decided it was time to finish his mission to mate with his harem. The sudden and aggressive forward launching of his blubbery massive body caused the other males in the area to scatter, in their clumsy, fat-rippling way. Cows cried, heads back and mouths wide open, in excitement or protest – I am not sure which. More giant slug-like bodies began moving aside as the male chose a female. Afterward, he approached several other cows but I am not sure if the act was consummated. It was a little hard to tell.

Eventually the bull settled down and fell asleep, mouth open, exhausted from the effort.

This alpha bull had been in a fight a few days earlier; our docent had witnessed it. Ragged, red wounds pot-marked the right side of his face. And he was the winner. I’d hate to see what happened to the other guy.

You can check out the blog post and photos from 2014:

Please do not use photographs without permission.

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