By Bob Difley
November is an anniversary date to note. It is the anniversary of the arrival in 1990 of the first elephant seals to migrate from other rookeries to what would become a large new rookery on the central California coast.
Those first couple dozen to arrive, along with the first pup birth in January of 1992, signaled the beginning of an exploding seal population. In 1996 six hundred pups were born and seals had spread out onto every sandy patch of beach on the rocky coastline. Visitors flocked in also, parking along the side of narrow two-lane Route 1, constricting traffic, and crossing private land and fences to get to the rookeries.
Today, thanks to some land trades, a large RV-friendly parking lot, walkways, interpretive signs, and blue-jacketed docents have turned the rookery into a popular wildlife viewing area and elephant seal educational center.
The site’s popularity has drawn visitors from around the world, partly because the beaches are narrow and the bluffs above the beach are just high enough to keep visitors and seals apart, permitting close-up views (and smells – phew!) of these large pinnipeds.
Though they spend most of their time at sea foraging for food, the seals come ashore twice a year, to breed and to molt. In November, the pendulous-nosed adult males start to arrive, with the females arriving about mid-December. The first pups are born around Christmas. Recently weaned juveniles and those still too young to breed return around September to rest. As they get older they return later with the breeding males.
But back in 1990 who could have estimated that nearly 30 years later more than 17,000 would gather for the different phases of their annual lifestyle. Peak season begins in October when the mating season begins – when these impressive 5,000-pound, 16-foot-long males fight for domination of their section of beach (and the females that are soon to arrive there). Female and sub-adult seals arrive just ahead of mating – between September and October.
The pregnant females start arriving in December and increase in January, usually arriving just days before giving birth to their 60-pound pups – which balloon to nearly 300 pounds in about three weeks.
So if you’re planning a visit to the Hearst Castle or San Luis Obispo, don’t miss this rookery located 4.4 miles north of Hearst Castle in San Simeon near Piedras Blancas light.