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Wild Elephant Seals Central Coast California Travel Blog In The Great Wide Piedras Blancas Beach

Wild Elephant Seals of Central California


It’s like watching a National Geographic special, 30 feet away, on the Central Coast of California, for FREE. Read on for fun facts about the elephant seals, where to find them, and what time of year you should go for the best views.


CONTENTS



What is an Elephant Seal?

Elephant seals are earless seals that are broken up into two major groups: northern elephant seals and southern elephant seals. Southern elephant seals are based in the waters surrounding Antarctica, venturing as far north as the southern tips of South America and South Africa, as well as some southern islands around New Zealand and Australia. Northern elephant seals hunt and fish in a large section of the Atlantic off the coast of Alaska, but use the Piedras Blancas beaches on the Central Coast of California to mate and rest during the colder months, which is where you can visit to see them, also known as a rookery. An “Elephant Seal Rookery” is a place where elephant seals return every year to mate, continuing a life cycle that has been ingrained into elephant seals for generations.


Male Elephant Seal At Piedras Blancas In California Travel Blog In The Great Wide

Fast Facts about Northern Elephant Seals:

  • The males can grow up to 5,000 pounds and up to 16 feet long, but the females are much smaller, weighing up to 1,800 pounds and 12 feet in length.

  • They’re called elephant seals because the males have a large proboscis (nose) that flops around like an elephant’s trunk.

  • With an extremely large volume of blood in their bodies, and their peculiar noses acting as a sort of rebreather, elephant seals can dive underwater for up to two hours, and up to 5,000 feet deep.

  • They’re protected from the frigid waters by massive amounts of blubber.

  • During certain yearly cycles, their skin and fur molt off while laying in the sun.


Fun Fact: Southern elephant seals are larger than northern elephant seals, with the males growing as large as 11,000 pounds, but they are much harder to get to a place where you can see them.



Elephant seals were almost hunted to extinction during the 19th century because their natural oil was highly coveted during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, by the 1880s, it was believed that elephant seals were extinct, but a small population of (less than 100) northern elephant seals was rediscovered in 1892 on an island 200 miles off the coast of Mexico. The species was then granted protective status by Mexico and the United States in the 1920s, allowing the population to naturally recover and grow to the approximately 200,000 northern elephant seals that are alive today, around 25,000 of which visit the beaches of Piedras Blancas every year.


History of Northern Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas:

  • 1990 - Elephant seals were spotted on the beaches south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

  • 1991 - Nearly 400 elephant seals hauled out on the Piedras Blancas beach to molt

  • 1992 - First elephant seal pup was born at Piedras Blancas

  • 1993 - Around 50 elephant seal pups were born at Piedras Blancas

  • 1995 - 600 elephant seal pups were born at Piedras Blancas

  • 1996 - Nearly 1,000 elephant seal pups are born at Piedras Blancas and the colony stretched southward and northward of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse along the beaches adjacent to Highway 1

  • 1997 - Friends of the Elephant Seal was formed with the goal of providing education about the elephant seals and other marine life on the Central Coast of California. Docents became available at the viewing areas to answer questions and keep the animals and people safe from each other.


In 2006, Piedras Blancas Rookery (which is just another word for a colony of breeding animals) was closed off from people going down onto the beach with the elephant seals in order to protect the wildlife, and the people for that matter, because these are 2-ton wild animals. The state of California took control of the beaches, building walkways with viewing areas and parking lots for people to safely watch the amazing life cycles of the northern elephant seal.


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Where to See the Elephant Seals in Central California

The Elephant Seal Rookery viewing point is located just south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse on Highway 1 on the Central Coast of California. It’s a few miles north of San Simeon and the Hearst Castle Visitors Center, making it easy to visit after taking a tour of Hearst Castle. The best place to look up on Google Maps is called Elephant Seal Vista Point (map below), which is a parking area between the most populous Piedras Blancas Beaches.



How to Get to the Elephant Seals Rookery in Central California

There is no public transportation up to the Elephant Seals Rookery, so a car is necessary. If you need to rent a car, we always rent through Turo because it’s way more affordable than traditional car rental agencies.


The Elephant Seals Rookery is located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, so it’s about a 4 hour drive (250 miles) from either direction. This is a beautiful area of California, so it’s worth it to take a weekend to explore the region. You can do tastings and tours at hundreds of wineries or breweries, tour the unique Hearst Castle, or even see the wildflowers during a super bloom.


Elephant Seals In San Simeon In April In The Great Wide Travel Blog Central California

Do You Need Tickets to see the Elephant Seals in San Simeon?

The Elephant Seals Vista Point is free and open 24 hours a day. Obviously, the daytime would be preferable visiting hours, as they’d be very hard to see during the night. There is no admission fee and no reservation system. Just stop by!



Best Times to See the Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas

How many elephant seals you’ll see at Piedras Blancas and what kinds of behavior you’ll see while you’re there will depend on what time of the year you visit. There are almost always some elephant seals there, but there are some times when it’s way more packed with the wild animals than others. Luckily, California State Parks has put up informational signs about the elephant seals around the viewpoint so you can know what to expect.


Calendar Guide For Wild Elephant Seals At Piedras Blancas In Central California Travel Blog In The Great Wide

​Month

What You’ll Likely See at Piedras Blancas

January

Males battle for dominance / Females nurse their newborn pups

February

Mating season

March

End of mating season in early March / Late March you may not see any elephant seals

April

Females and juveniles molting

May

Females and juveniles molting

June

Juveniles molting

July

Males molting

August

Males molting

September

None / Late September you may see some juveniles resting on the beach

October

Juveniles resting on the beach

November

None

December

Males battle for dominance / Females give birth to new pups


We visited in April, which is the molting season for elephant seal females and juveniles, so we didn’t see any of the adult males. From what we’ve heard, the battles for dominance can be pretty intense to watch, so just keep that in mind as you’re deciding when to visit, especially if you have small children. In these battles for dominance, the males will crash into and bite each other, sometimes killing their opponent. The successful males then mate with as many females as possible (males have upwards of 50 males on their claimed beach territory).


Although it can be brutal at times, the winter months when the males battle for dominance is also the best time to go if you want to see thousands upon thousands of the elephant seals, and it’s also the only time you’ll see baby elephant seals. If you’d prefer to just see how cute these creatures can be without the sometimes bloody battles, visit during molting season instead.


Wild Elephant Seal Viewing Point Piedras Blancas San Simeon Beach In The Great Wide California Travel Blog

Our Experience

We were up in California’s Central Coast for my birthday, visiting Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea, and the Paso Robles/Atascadero area. On his birthday, we spent the morning at Hearst Castle and then had a nice lunch at the Hearst Ranch Winery before heading up the road to see the elephant seals. Before we left on the trip, we stumbled upon the Friends of the Elephant Seals website while researching the area, and we knew we had to check out this unique spectacle of wild animals. We had always assumed we’d have to travel outside of the country to somewhere more “exotic” to see anything like it.


The Elephant Seal View Point is just a few miles north of San Simeon (in fact, you can still see Hearst Castle way off in the distance from the view point). We went on a Sunday, so we weren’t sure how busy it would be, but were pleasantly surprised to realize that there was ample parking and not a ton of people there to observe the elephant seals. Granted, it was also a little cold with the strong coastal sea winds, so make sure you bundle up, as just those few miles south in San Simeon where we had just had lunch, it was a lovely, warm afternoon.


Central California Travel Blog In The Great Wide Wild Elephant Seals San Simeon Guide

Upon arrival at the view point, we went to the northern beach first, as we had done a bit of research and checked out the elephant seal live cams on the Friends of the Elephant Seal website that morning to get a sneak peek of where more elephant seals were sunbathing. Even though you can’t walk down to get to the seals themselves, you’re still just a short cliff above some of the seals that have wandered as close to the rocky outcropping as possible. They almost look like rocks themselves at first glance, that is until you see one flip sand up on itself or another squirming out of the water.


There is nothing that will quite prepare you for the majesty of seeing hundreds of giant wild animals just hanging out on the beach. The pictures and videos do a decent job of showing how many there are, but the size is almost incomprehensible. Along the guardrail, there are markings for the length of adult males, adult females, and pups, and you don’t realize just how long 14-16 feet is until you’re standing next to it.


The other thing we weren’t prepared for was the amount of noise coming from the animals. They’re constantly squawking at each other as they jostle around for a better spot on the beach; to the point of a few just climbing over each other to get better positioning. Even though it was cold to us, the elephant seals were constantly kicking up sand to shield themselves from the heat of the sun.


Female Elephant Seals At Piedras Blancas Central Coast California Travel Blog In The Great Wide

After a few minutes, a Friends of the Elephant Seals docent came over and asked if we had any questions. He was very nice and excited to share his knowledge of elephant seals with us. He carried a small bound book of photos showing what they usually eat, and explained that while they were molting, they didn’t eat anything for a month or two at a time. We love a good docent, and it added so much to our experience there, seeing elephant seals for the first time.


We watched the elephant seals on the north beach for quite a while, chuckling at their funny way of moving around and then plopping their entire body to the ground when they got tired. There was a whole walking path that you could follow even further north, but we decided to not walk too far due to Phoebe’s current back injury. We walked down to the southern beach just on the other side of the parking lot, which we thought was going to be rather empty of elephant seals (according to the live cam we saw that morning), but we were surprised to see how many had come ashore and were basking in the sun there too. Many on this side looked to be juveniles, as they weren’t nearly as big as the females on the north beach.



There are informational boards posted throughout the viewing area, giving facts about the life cycles of the elephant seals and their behaviors. Inspired by this and the wonderful docent we ran into, we decided to take the 7 mile drive down the coast to the Friends of the Elephant Seal Visitor Center and Gift Shop (address and map below). Another enthusiastic attendant was there to answer questions and run the gift shop. She provided us with samples of elephant seal fur to touch and showed us display cases with skulls of an adult male, adult female, and pup to give you a better idea of just how big these creatures are. We bought some postcards to send to our family, as all proceeds go straight to ensuring that the rookery is maintained for generations of elephant seals to use in the years to come. It was a great way to finish up our visit to San Simeon before heading back to Atascadero for some birthday drinks at Bristols Cider House.



Our Verdict

We really had no idea that this huge gathering of wild animals happens so close to our home in Los Angeles; you always think about those kinds of things happening somewhere “else”, such as Africa or Antarctica. The entire Central Coast of California is definitely worth checking out, so when you do, make sure to put this National Geographic-worthy stop on your bucket list and bask in the splendor of these cute, funny, powerful wild animals.


Piedras Blancas Wild Elephant Seals In Central California Travel Blog In The Great Wide

Quick Reference Guide

What

Where

Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on California’s Central Coast

Elephant Seal Vista Point - 7 miles north of the Friends of the Elephant Seal Visitor Center and Gift Shop on Highway 1: 250 San Simeon Ave Suite 5A, San Simeon, CA 93452

How to Get There

A car is a must, as there is no public transportation to the area. Rent a car from Turo if needed and enjoy the entire Central Coast region.

Time Commitment

Plan to spend 30 minutes - 1 hour at the viewing point, which is open 24 hours a day.

Cost

FREE

Reservation Info

No reservations or tickets are offered

Pro Tip

Bundle up! The ocean winds can get cold really fast, even if it’s warm just a few miles down the road.

Our Verdict

It’s like a National Geographic special, only way closer and easier to get to than you think. You can easily spend at least a long weekend in this beautiful region of California, and visiting these wild animals should be a MUST on your list.


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Travel Writer Adam Neubauer For In The Great Wide California Travel Blog


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