California reserve serves as winter breeding ground IN SEARCH OF ELEPHANT SEALS

January 23, 1994|By Mary Forgione | Mary Forgione,Los Angeles Daily News

Walking across the wind-whipped dunes of this stretch of California coast less than a mile off Highway 1, you hear the strange bellow of elephant seals before you see them.

"People compare it to an outboard motor being started or a Harley-Davidson without a muffler," park ranger Leander Tamoria tells a group of visitors who have hiked a half hour to the deep-sand beach dunes of Ano Nuevo State Reserve in search of seals.

At first glance, these listless 1,500-pound pinnipeds look like giant slugs strewn along the sandy shore, hardly the type of wildlife that would draw worldwide attention to this coastal strip 22 miles north of Santa Cruz. But almost as soon as they come into sight, a second docent-led group is already tramping across the dunes -- a fraction of the 40,000 who will come to gawk at these seals during the breeding season that ends in March.

What makes this 4,000-acre coastal reserve so popular at this time of year is that it is the only mainland beach in the United States where elephant seals breed. These primarily marine mammals traditionally breed on islands.

"This is a wildlife spectacular similar to something you would have to go all the way to Africa to see," says supervising ranger Gary Strachan.

The show, about a 70-mile drive down the coast from San Francisco, doesn't disappoint.

On this mid-December day, two males, called bulls, suddenly bellow, rear up, and begin smashing their chests and oversized, bulbous noses against each other in a battle over turf. Though these violent clashes often draw blood, they are rarely fatal.

"Bulls aren't protecting the offspring, they're protecting their right to mate," explains a docent leading a group.

Meanwhile, the pregnant females huddle together to protect their unborn pups. Farther down the beach, Mr. Tamoria points to the sole baby seal born this season that is snuggled against its mother. It is rare to see a birth, but pups are among the thousands of seals on the beach during this season.

Mostly, the elephant seals languish in the sand among willows and ice plant, allowing visitors to approach within 20 feet -- close enough to peer into their eyes. These elephant seals spend most of the year in coastal waters off California, heading as far north as Vancouver Island in British Columbia. But during their breeding season, mid-December to March, they beach themselves, losing about a third of their body weight in the months spent ashore.

Through March, visitors are allowed on the reserve in groups no larger than 20. The walks have become so popular that the 300 volunteers who lead them every 15 minutes daily starting at 8:45 a.m. can't keep up with demand. Last year, about 40,000 of the reserve's 210,000 annual visitors came during the 3 1/2 -month breeding period, Mr. Strachan says. From December through March, reservations are a must for the three-mile walks, which are conducted in rain, hail or fog.

"We don't want to disturb the animals. The preserve is set aside for wildlife and habitat," Mr. Strachan says. "If we can get the public in, that's great, but it's the animals first."

After March, no reservations are required to walk the reserve's beach paths and view the seals. By then, the adults return to the water and the babies are left to learn how to swim and forage for food.

The popularity of baby elephant seals, which has attracted international attention, is a relatively recent phenomenon for the reserve, an area of mountains, bluffs, dunes and beaches.

Historically, the hundreds of thousands of seals along the coasts of California and northern Mexico in the late 19th century fell prey to hunters who were after them as a source of oil. By 1920, the species was thought to be extinct until about 50 elephant seals were found on the Isle of Guadalupe off Baja, Mexico. Because both countries agreed to protect the species in the 1920s, their numbers have climbed to 120,000 today -- 4,000 of which head inland at the reserve during breeding time.

In 1955, the seals were first spotted on a small rocky jut of land a half-mile away from the reserve, where an 1890 lighthouse and a research facility still stand. The first pup was born on that island six years later. The elephant seals headed to the mainland in 1965, after the island became crowded. The colony has since proliferated and shows no signs of abating.

"Every year there are more seals, and every year they stay longer," Mr. Strachan says.

But despite this safe inland enclave, docent Mary Shea says only 50 percent of the babies born this year will be back next year. Most will fall prey to whales or great white sharks.

Seeing a pup born is a rare event, she says.

"I've been out here for seven years now and I've never seen a birth. A few times I've seen one right after; the sea gulls do the cleanup."

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