A Northern Elephant Seal at Ano Nuevo State Park.On a sunny Tuesday, our education staff quietly slipped out the zoo door and headed south for an off-site enrichment day: a day to learn and be inspired by nature, in order to teach and inspire others.
We headed west, then south down the coast to the site of the largest mainland breeding colony of the massive Northern Elephant Seal: Ano Nuevo State Reserve.
The Northern Elephant Seal is named for the large, protruding nose, or proboscis on the male of the species. Like elephants, they are also gigantic. The bulls can grow up to 16 feet long and weigh up to 5000 lbs, while the females are much smaller.
On a hike guided by a knowledgeable naturalist volunteer, Scott, our staff spent 1.5 hours traipsing over the dunes to see the winter breeding action of this charismatic pinniped. Getting respectfully close, we first saw what they referred to as “Loser Males”. Though this term felt a bit un-PC (how about “mating-challenged?”), the idea is that these males are not old enough or savvy enough to be an alpha or beta male. They are simply not in the competition this year, so they lounge away from the females, thermo-regulating by flipping sand on themselves and holding fins up into the ocean breeze.
We then came upon a pile of weaners. This is another fine term used to describe the young pups that are newly weaned from Mom. These co-ed pods spend time losing some of their 300 lbs of milk fat while they learn to swim in the rain water pools. Born at 70 lbs, pups are nursed for a month or so before they gain weight and take on their new role as weaners. Some pups nurse from two or three females and gain up to 600 lbs. These are then dubbed Super Weaners. The weaners are the last to leave the site, waiting until the adults have gone to take their time swimming away in the salty waves.
Towards the shore the real show was on; Females (cows) gathered in harams, some nursing pups. Males (bulls) fought other males, or at least postured, in order to establish dominance and control of the harams. In one case, a masculine fellow came after another male, blubbering up towards him with full barks, only to then claim his seawater puddle. The fights between males are usually short, but very dramatic and violent. According to Scott, an Alpha Male Elephant Seal in mating-mode has more testosterone than any other mammal.
Our staff left feeling like weaners ourselves; happy and exhausted, but not as exhausted as Scott, whom I am sure has never fielded as many questions as he did for our staff!
Breeding Season at Ano Nuevo is December 15-March 31. In spring and summer, the elephant seals return to molt.
The Ano Nuevo Interpretive Program is excellent and popular. Book a guided tour and check out the dominance displays!
After your tour, visit the gift shop at the site. On your way home, I recommend the town of Pescadero for artichoke bread at Arc Angel Grocery Company & Bakery or the San Gregorio General Store.
Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at The Oakland Zoo.
latitude: 37.1266, longitude: -122.3344