It all began on November 25, 1990 – the date that Elephant Seals began using the beaches at Piedras Blancas.
Fewer than two dozen elephant seals were originally counted in the small cove just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse, though since then the population has expanded at a dramatic rate and California has seen it’s Elephant Seal population absolutely explode. One pup was born in 1992, and more than 5300 were born in the 2014 birthing season.
What started off as less than 50 seals in a small cove has since evolved into a colony which now stretches all the way to beaches that run along the Pacific Coast Highway, and it truly is an unbelievable spectacle to see. Easily the #1 attraction close by Cambria, we were transfixed by the beach scene for hours.
Traveling during April, we were there to bear witness to the “catastrophic molt”. Beginning in late march and peaking around the first of May, Elephant Seals arrive on the beach for a month of molting. They shed all their fur over the course of several weeks.
To protect themselves from severe energy loss in the cold ocean they limit the flow of blood outside outside the blubber layer and therefore cannot grow new skin and hair cells as we do all year long. Instead, they come on shore for a month to grow new skin and hair, shedding a layer of old skin and all of their hair on the beach.
Travel during December – March for birthing and breeding. Adult males arrive in December and fight for dominance over the beach, and pregnant females give birth to pups weighing 60-80 pounds. The peak of birthing is in January.
Travel during April – August to witness molting, and September – November for what is referred to as the “fall hall-out” – male and female elephant seals that are too young to take part in the breeding season haul out to rest in the fall. This is a great time of year to witness young males practice fighting.
How to Get There
Elephant Seal rookery at Piedras Blancas is located on California highway 1 at the southern end of Big Sur on the California coast, twelve miles north of Cambria and four miles north of the entrance to the Hearst Castle. It is free of charge, and while visitors are prohibited from accessing the beach, there is a well maintained boardwalk right next to the seals.
Why here? Why not! “The location is ideal for the seals: it is protected by the Piedras Blancas point from storms from the northwest; it has wide, sandy beaches offering pups protection from high water; and it is protected from predators by a kelp forest.” – Friends of the Elephant Seal.