State

Año Nuevo State Park welcomes the elephant seals back to shore

PESCADERO -- Located just about an hour and a half south of San Francisco sits one of the wonders of wildlife, a state park where for 19 years it has hosted the largest mainland breeding colony in the world for the northern elephant seal.

From mid-December to early spring, Año Nuevo State Park is visited by hundreds of thousands of people who take one of the naturalist-guided walks to see the migration and breeding cycle of the elephant seals. Since the park is only accessible during this time by taking one of the tours, reservations are highly recommended for these popular three-mile walks, which last about 2½ hours.

December brings the bulls, the adult males, to shore, where they'll roar, throw their weight around and engage in territorial battles for mating positions. Pregnant females will follow to find a nesting spot among the dunes to birth their newborns beginning in late December and reaching a peak by late January.

In February, guided walks offer the chance to view the bonding experience between mothers and pups as the nursing, weaning and playful interaction takes place. By the end of February, most of the adult seals have left the beaches and have headed back to the water, but the hundreds of weaned pups stay behind to frolic in the sand dunes and hone their swimming skills in the tide pools.

As the coastal weather can be very unpredictable, the state park offers a few recommendations -- a warm jacket, layered clothing, sturdy shoes and rain gear. Tour participants are also encouraged to bring bottled water for drinking on the trail and -- to catch the perfect memory moment -- cameras and binoculars are welcome. Due to safety issues, umbrellas and baby strollers are not permitted and as there is already an abundance of animal activity on the beaches, pets are not permitted to tag along.

Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino sailed around the rocky point in January 1603. His diarist and chaplain named it, Punta de Año Nuevo meaning New Year's Point. The point remains much as it did when Vizcaino sailed it -- wild, undisturbed and lonely, all the things that make for a perfect breeding home for the elephant seal and a perfect glimpse at the beauty of nature for us.

Bee assistant librarian Karen Aiello can be reached at kaiello@modbee.com or at 578-2392.

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