Año Nuevo State Park, Pescadero: The Blood Triangle

Had it not been for the wonderful staff at the Año Nuevo State Park, I would have missed the high drama on the beach: the testosterone filled fight, harems, birthing, lactation, mating and sex.  The beautiful scenery on CA-Highway 1 distracted me that I missed the exit to #1 Año Nuevo Road. I had to drive an extra 20 miles back and forth and made me late for my scheduled guided walk. Lucky for me, the accommodating staff at Año Nuevo State Park put me on a later schedule. Understanding that the guided walks get fully booked, I would have been happy to join the high school and grade school kids who were up next on the schedule, but Steve from the check-in counter said, “I don’t think you want to join a bunch of screaming kids”. When they called out the 10:30 walk, I was the only one who showed up. "Well it appears you're going to have a private tour," said Steve, a State Park ranger. He then instructed me to walk the trail (approximately 3/4 mile) to the staging location where a docent was waiting up for me. I had a docent by the name of Michael H.

Past the gate, we entered the restricted zone and walked past the “Wild Elephant Seals – Stay Back 25 feetsign. Michael started the tour by asking me if I knew the meaning of Año Nuevo. Since I just got back from South America, the familiarity of places called ‘Punta something’ and the Spanish conquistadores’ lack of creativity for naming a place according to the date of its discovery, was still fresh in my mind. He then went on to explain about the history of the place. La Punta de Año Nuevo was named on January 3, by a chaplain for the Spanish explorer Vizcaino, commissioned to map Alta California. Grizzly bears populated the area then. The grizzly bears are gone now, but there are animals that come in the night, like gray fox, mountain lion, bobcat, coyote, Western Harvest mouse and bugs.

We continued to walk the dirt trail between thickets of short willow bushes and grass. Earlier, I noticed the preserved lupine flowers on display at the marine observation center. Apparently, they grow in the area too, but not in bloom at this time of the year. Eventually, we made our way to an observation platform, where I was able to see the cave and a partial view of the Año Nuevo Island. It was low tide and it seemed we could wade across the waters to get to the island. But Michael said it is dangerous to cross the sea to get to the island. A kayaker died from crossing the area, he was attacked by a white shark. Pointing to the sea, he said, “That area is littered with white sharks.” The presence of sharks in the water and the animals that come in the night earned this place the name ‘The Blood Triangle’. Suddenly, a black vulture flew overhead. Michael said that a variety of birds like cormorant, terns and vultures, ravens, pelicans, etc.  could be found in the area. I learned that Año Nuevo State Park is an excellent Birding destination and visited by bird watchers from all over the world.  Although the main reason for my visit was to see the elephant seals, I was pleasantly surprised to find the bio-diversity in the State Park - a gem of a place so close by.

Año Nuevo State Park is a Natural Preserve established to protect biological, ecological and cultural values of the California coastline and significant wildlife habitats, including sensitive native plants and intertidal ecosystem. Today, it is one the largest elephant seal breeding colonies in the world. One can observe elephant seal all year round, but the best time to visit is between December and March – the elephant seal breeding season. Docents are available for guided visit during the breeding season.

The Elephant Seal Experience

We left the dirt trail to continue up the sand dunes where Michael gave me a lot of informative facts about the elephant seal: The breeding season begins in early December when the first males (bulls) arrive. They range from fourteen to sixteen feet long and weigh up to two and a half tons. In late December, the females begin to arrive and form "harems". They’re much smaller than the males, they average ten to twelve feet in length and weigh 1,200 to 2,000 pounds. “Let me tell you about new science,” said Michael as he pointed to "a map showing how far the seals travel and how deep they dive" sign. Scientists/marine biologists are able to record the diving depth and distance traveled by a seal from the GPS that's glued to the seals head.  (The GPS is glued and not implanted by surgical procedure so as not to harm the animals). Michael demonstrated the elephant seals falling-leaf-spiraling style of diving that allow them to dive for 20-40 minutes to a depth of 1,000 to 2,000 feet in search of food: rays, skates, squid, and small sharks.

As we walked towards the beach, I spotted my first elephant seal, a sleeping guy. I thought he was dead. Michael explained that elephant seals sleep to conserve energy. They could go on for days without food. He talked about the sound that each type of elephant seal makes. Soon I heard a deep drumming/gurggly sound coming from the beach. “It’s from the male elephant, the male threat call,” said Michael. And boy, there’s nothing like seeing them in action as we reached the observation platform. I was treated to a live show – a high drama full of intrigue: The males battle on the beach for dominance and to protect their harems, pelicans going after the milk from nursing mothers, and ravens waiting for placenta from a very pregnant seal so close to giving birth. You have to see it to believe it. That said, let me just share this one-of-a-kind experience through the following photo essay.

#1.  Elephant Seals  are so named because of their large size and long hanging noses (on the males). These large animals spend most of their lives at sea, the females come to the beach to give birth, and the males battle on the beaches for their harems.  
This guy is the oldest as can be observed from the wrinkly skin. He is the king of the beach with more than 20 harems.
 #2. They fight to establish dominance (Michael compared it to a military battle) . The successful bull does much of the breeding. They start to learn how to fight at an early age. Pictured below are young males, around 2 1/2 years old.
#3.  A bull surrounded by harems.  Behind the bull are two females nursing their pups.  The pelican is after the milk from the nursing females.  

#4. Pictured here is a very pregnant seal. She will give birth to a ‘pup’ anytime soon. The ravens are waiting to feast on the placenta.

#5.  The female seals appear to look dead or just lying on the beach because they get so weak from  from nursing and fasting (they lose about 10 pounds from 1 feeding alone). About three weeks after giving birth, the female is ready to mate. Gestation period takes about 7 months. They go back to the sea to feed off the coast of Northern Washington and Vancouver Island in British Columbia and do not appear on land again until mating season. They cannot give birth at sea because the pups are unable to swim, they drown. Meanwhile, the pups become ‘weaners’ after four to six weeks and able to feed off the coast.
 NOTE:  All photos by the author

  • Año Nuevo State Park is located in San Mateo County, approximately 60 miles from San Francisco, 25 miles south of Half Moon Bay and 25 miles north of Santa Cruz on HWY 1.  
  • Guided tours/walks are offered during the breeding season (December through March) and can be booked days in advance and no later than one day before arrival.  It can be booked online
  • Cost of the walk is $7.00 per person
  • Parking fee range from $10.00 to $100.00 depending on the vehicle type.
  • The walk lasts for 2.5 hours and is somewhat strenuous 3 mile hike over dirt trail, sloping terrain and sand dune.  There is a boarded pathway for physically challenged individuals, but you have to call and make arrangement ahead of time.
  • No pets are allowed.



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