Cambrian: Opinion

It’s the best time to watch the Piedras Blancas elephant seals — even online

Visitors sometimes ask, “What’s the best time of year to visit the seals?” In May, it’s easy to say, “Today!” This is the busiest time of the year.

The 5,600 adult females who gave birth during the winter have now returned from their short, two-month, migration. They are joined by those that didn’t have a pup this year, plus all the juvenile seals of both sexes. The beach is so crowded with seals, you could walk across it using the seals as stepping stones.

The air carries a certain eau de seal fragrance, the result of having thousands of mammal bodies in one place. Seals rarely defecate on the beach. They don’t eat while they are on the beach, living off their blubber, so other bodily functions aren’t necessary, either.

The seals are molting their skin. It peels off in chunks. They look like something bad is happening to them, but it’s normal for seals. Ask a blue-jacketed Friends of the Elephant Seal docent to see a sample. You can handle it. It’s more bristly than soft.

Being at the viewpoint, feeling the sharp chill of the wind and the warmth of the sun, hearing the seals bark and roar, looking out at the vista of sea and sky, make the experience more important than visitors can imagine from home. Handling the skin adds another dimension.

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Docents carry photo books that illustrate the seals’ annual cycle, from birth in January through molting and juvenile development. The photos are great, but looking at pictures isn’t the same as being there. Visitors often comment that they have seen the seals on television, but the impact of being so close to them on the boardwalk is different.

Not everyone can visit Piedras Blancas, though. Digital technology can bring the seals to the world, to a wider audience than can ever hope to visit in person. California State Parks now operates the live web camera that watches over the seals. The camera has been upgraded, and sound was recently added. Visitors come from around the country and the world. They enjoy being able to take the experience home with them, both for personal enjoyment and to show their friends where they were and what they saw.

Piedras Blancas Light Station has its own webcam. It cycles through five different views, at least one of which shows the beach at the cove where the seals first arrived on the Central Coast.

Web cams have given us an eye into nature that’s impossible without them. Ventana Wildlife Society has two remote webcams on their condors in Big Sur. One shows the non-lead feeding area, and the other the pen where condors acclimate to life in the wild. Staff members bring food (a dead calf) up to the site so the condors can eat safe food, rather than carcasses that have been killed with lead ammunition, which is poisonous and can kill them.

Watch brown bears catch and eat fish at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park in Alaska. Several osprey nests are under watch. They have contests to name the babies that hatch!

Search around the web for exotic wildlife that you’d like to see. Chances are, there’s a webcam for that.

Christine Heinrichs’ column appears monthly and is special to The Cambrian.

Internet webcam sites

Elephant seals:

Piedras Blancas Light Station:

Condors: feeding, Check out the newly hatched chick at Hopper Mountain in Ventura County:


All kinds of birds at Bird Cams, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is located on, wait for it, Sapsucker Woods Road:


Yellowstone has ten web cams, including Old Faithful:

Yosemite has four web cams, including live streaming of Yosemite Falls,