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Año Nuevo

January, 2004

The view from Año Nuevo.
1. Año Nuevo view
Sand dunes.
2. Sand dunes
Elephant seal.
3. Elephant seal
Our docent.
4. Our docent

On January 3, 1603, a Spanish explorer named Sebastian Vizcaino was the first European to see this point of land on the coast of California, just north of Monterrey Bay. He named it La Punta de Año Nuevo, in honor of the new year. Over the centuries, the land has been eroded by the sea so that the point has become an island. The elephant seals that once gathered here in huge numbers to breed and give birth were hunted almost to extinction, but survived and are now increasing in numbers once again. Today, Año Nuevo is a State Reserve that was created to protect the elephant seals and the habitat that supports them.

We made reservations weeks in advance, as the Reserve is very popular and visitors are limited, and went to visit the elephant seals on December 31st. It was a very long drive to the coast (about 4 hours) and we were afraid we would be late, but we made it just in time for our guided tour. The landscape around the Reserve is quite beautiful (thumbnail photo #1, at left). The land is a mixture of highly erosive soils and sand dunes (photo #2) that are moving across the peninsula, driven by the wind.

The elephant seals (photo #3) are the major attraction at Año Nuevo, of course. All tours are led by docents (photo #4) who provide a wealth of information about the history of the land, and the lives of the seals. The males are huge, weighing as much as 6,000 pounds, more than most automobiles. They cannot walk on land, but can pull themselves over the sand at speeds up to 3 mph (about as fast as most people can run in the soft sand). When not moving about, they lie around on the sand looking very much like giant slugs. Wherever they travel, the seals leave an undulating track through the sand.

The seals have no natural enemies, and are not much afraid of people. Although they did sometimes watch us, they mostly slept or jockeyed for position on the beach. The males compete to control the best beach property in order to attract the females, with whom they will mate later in the spring. In fact, most of the males will never be able to mate. Only the biggest and strongest animals will reproduce. Many of the smaller males find a quiet spot away from the action to avoid all the drama and danger.

At the time of our visit, the seals were really just arriving. We saw several new males pulling themselves up onto the beach from the sea. Only a few of females had arrived, and they were earlier than usual. So the prime beach area was still only sparsely populated. The greatest numbers of seals should be on the beaches about the end of January.

The trip was certainly worth the effort. We got very close to some very impressive animals, the scenery was terrific, and we had a great time. We would love to return another year when the seals are present in their full numbers.

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Jim and Jamie Richter, http://gotouring.com/razzledazzle/
Website designed and created by Lois Richter, expanded by Jim.
Created 1/2004. All photos are © 2004 Jim Richter.