Elephant seal rookery is a treat that’s accessible to all

Baby elephant seals frolic on the beach at Piedras Blancas

It's birthing season at the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. Here's a look at what the elephant seals and their pups are up to. Video taken on January 4, 2016.
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It's birthing season at the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. Here's a look at what the elephant seals and their pups are up to. Video taken on January 4, 2016.

Seeing the elephant seals in their Piedras Blancas rookery should be on everyone’s bucket list, in part because it’s ridiculously easy to do, even for those with physical restrictions.

Just drive north on Highway 1. About four miles north of the Hearst Castle turnoff, turn left into the parking lot for the roadside elephant seal vista point. Walk a few yards to a nearby boardwalk and see the elephant seals.

It’s that simple. No long walk through the sand, no appointments, no reservations, no tour guides, no time limits. All you do is go. And it’s free.

There are, however, few amenities (no restrooms, shade or snack bar). Even so, some people stay for hours, watching the massive marine mammals snooze and scratch, spar and be couch potatoes as they rest from their long migration.

At this time of year, however, the rookery is packed with animals and noisy activity. It’s birthing and breeding season, when it seems most of the rookery’s approximately 23,000 migratory elephant seals are there, actually doing something … which includes producing new elephant seals.

As The Tribune’s North Coast reporter, I’ve gone to the rookery many times since the federally protected animals first arrived there in 1990. I’ve written about the need for and establishment of the docent program, rescues of ill or injured animals and releases of rehabilitated elephant seals. I also regularly accompany family and friends who want to experience the rookery’s magic.

Still on my bucket list, however, was taking husband Richard, a former elephant seal docent, who hadn’t been back to the rookery since he had a significant stroke two years ago.

Winter calendar

In late November, Northern elephant seals begin returning to their home turf, and pregnant females usually start giving birth in mid-December. Pups spend about a month with mom, sometimes quintupling their birth weight. You’ll swear you can see them growing.

Meanwhile in the noisy testosterone zone, young males are fighting with teenage bulls, who are fighting with beta bulls, who are battling with the elephant-trunk-nosed Big Daddy alpha males (up to 5,000 pounds!) for rights to a territory and the harem of females on it.

In December and January, the females give birth, nurse their pups and mate.

The cycle closes as each female weans her pup by leaving it on the beach, then fights her way through a phalanx of sex-crazed males. Several will try to mate with her before she leaves. “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand, bub?”

The pups, dubbed “weaners,” will spend the next eight to 10 weeks at the rookery, learning to be big elephant seals. Sadly, up to about 40 percent won’t survive their first year, according to Donovan Marley, advisory board member of Friends of the Elephant Seal. Some are washed out to sea before learning to swim or don’t know how to sufficiently feed themselves, for example, while others are hunted by predators or can’t find enough to eat due to weather conditions.

What elephant seals don’t do while on land is eat. They also don’t defecate, for which rookery visitors should be extremely grateful.

It’s mesmerizing to watch the elephant seals. And be forewarned: Nearly all the more than 100 volunteer “blue jacket” docents started out as visitors themselves. Enthusiasm about elephant seals is contagious.

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Our elephant seal experiences

On our trial run, Richard used his walker. He’d have done better with his cane. The unpaved parking and access areas are bumpy, and the wobbling walker wasn’t providing much stability. It worked slightly better on the bluff-top boardwalks, but he still had to be very careful.

Standing also wears him out. You do a lot of standing and watching at the elephant seal rookery. There are few places to sit.

The wheelchair was the solution, providing a seat and removing any worries about unstable walking. With cane in hand, Richard could stand up occasionally, walk around on the boardwalk and even take pictures.

On the boardwalk, we heard several foreign languages and saw singles, couples, groups and nearly every conceivable family configuration. Ages ranged from newborn (not impressed) to a man in his 90s. All seemed to appreciate the trained docents, who regularly donate time at the rookery’s edge to guide and inform visitors.

We learned a lot on our bucket-list trip, including that I shouldn’t expect a former docent to just be a regular visitor.

Before I could say “elephant seal,” Richard was chatting with some out-of-towners, regaling them with stories from his past experiences on the bluff.

I guess once a docent, always a docent.

So, don’t just put “seeing the elephant seals” on your bucket list. Do it, soon, while the big show is on (usually through February). I bet you’ll be back.

Kathe Tanner: 805-927-4140, @CambriaReporter

If you go

Here are some tips for those with physical restrictions whose bucket list includes seeing the elephant seals in their rookery about four miles north of San Simeon, just west of Highway 1:

  • Crowds at the rookery are smaller during the week.
  • Avoid holiday time. Same reason.
  • Need help? Ask for it. Docents and even other visitors rushed over to help with my husband Richard’s wheelchair.
  • Allow plenty of time, so you don’t rush that process or limit your viewing opportunities. Many people wind up staying longer than they planned.
  • Bring water to drink and sunscreen to apply liberally. And have some snacks in the car.
  • Dress warmly, in layers. Brisk, chilly winds blow frequently at the rookery, but if they stop, the atmosphere can warm up quickly.
  • Visit a restroom before you go to the rookery.
  • Bring a camera. Or two. And, if you have it, a zoom lens. Video? Of course.
  • Listen to docents and your own common sense. Stay off the beach. The massive beasts can cause serious injuries simply by rolling over on you. Elephant seals appear somnolent, but when awake, they can relocate very rapidly with their unusual galumphing, hunching movements. If annoyed, they’re apt to bite.

Do the Bucket List

Looking to uncover all that’s fun, Tribune reporters are scouring San Luis Obispo County, checking off must-do activities from our SLO Bucket List.

If you take part in an activity from our list, share your experiences at Include photos and up to 600 words.

If you have a bucket list idea you’d like to share, send that along too.