In 1892 there were fewer than 200 northern elephant seals alive, and their dwindling population clung to tiny island habitats off of the coast of Baja California. This was the result of ruthless seal hunting: oil from seal blubber yielded the oil that lit the lamps of the West. Mexico was first to pass laws protecting the animals, followed by the United States. Gradually the seal numbers began to grow, and the first elephant seals came to Año Nuevo Island in 1955. The first pup was born on the mainland of Año Nuevo Point 1975. Today they number in the thousands and breed as far north as Point Reyes.
Elephant seals can be see at Año Nuevo State Park year round, but the months of December through March are the most active. The two-ton male seals fight bloody battles, the females give birth to young conceived the prior year, the adults mate, and the weaner pups look cute. The seals return at various times of the year to molt (shed their outer skin and fur). Access to the Año Nuevo Coast Natural Preserve is limited to ranger-led walks during the active months, and these are a must-do adventure. Nowhere else in North America can people get so close to such huge and interesting animals as they live out their dramatic lives in the wild.
The guided walks are about 3 miles round-trip and usually involve some heavy walking through soft sand. Spots fill up quickly (these are extremely popular with schools), so reserve at least a week ahead. There is an additional $7 fee for adults. The best times are early morning and late afternoon to avoid large numbers of school children. The fighting males are most active in December and early January, which is also a good time to see live births. Most of the males are gone by late February, but there are hundreds of cute pups that densely populate the beaches and dunes.
Note: Dogs are not allowed anywhere in Año Nuevo State Park and cannot be left unattended in vehicles in the parking lot.