It’s elephant seal breeding season on the coast of California, an exciting natural phenomenon that’s iconic to our state. Northern elephant seals inhabit the waters from Baja California, Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. They generally breed from December to March at Point Reyes, Año Nuevo, and San Simeon.
Safety note: As interesting as these creatures are, they can be very dangerous. The ferocious male seals weigh between 3,300-5,100 pounds, measure between 13-16 feet long, and can cover large distances in a short amount of time. Remember to observe from a distance, watch quietly, and follow park signage.
Where to see elephant seals in California
Point Reyes has two prime viewing locations for its elephant seal visitors. Before you head out, make sure to check the current conditions page for closures due to winter storms and seal activity.
- Elephant Seal Overlook: From this overlook, visitors can watch the elephant seals on the beach at the base of the bluffs across the way. Bring binoculars!
- Drakes Beach (temporarily closed due to storm damage): Drakes Beach usually hosts about 600 seals through March, which you can see from the Drakes Beach Parking Lot. Winter Wildlife Docents are usually on site to educate visitors and monitor the seals.
Año Nuevo State Park is one of the world’s largest mainland elephant seal breeding colonies, meaning that the seals can be viewed year-round there (Bay Area kids might remember taking field trips here back in the day). To see them you’ll need to take a moderate 3-4 mile hike out to the beaches, and you must reserve a guided walk between December and March.
If you miss breeding season, you can still see the seals at Año Nuevo for molting season (April-August) and juvenile haul out (September-November). During this time of year you can see the seals via a self-guided walk, but you must get a visitor permit.
Elephant Seal Vista Point
Elephant Seal Vista Point on the side of Highway 1 is a free and accessible way to see the elephant seals. You can see them right from the dirt parking lot located about seven miles north of San Simeon, with no hiking or reservations required.
The San Simeon and Piedras Blancas area can host up to 17,000 elephant seals at peak times of year. Consider a visit to Friends of the Elephant Seal for more info about elephant seal viewing in the area.
More about elephant seals
Elephant seal breeding season happens between December-March in California and is considered prime elephant seal viewing time. You may witness male dominance contests, birthing of pups, mating, and other fascinating behavior.
Adult male elephant seals known as “bulls” arrive around December so as to stake a claim and engage in bloody fights with each other to establish dominance. They are enormous, violent, and recognizable for their characteristic nose, which resembles an elephant’s trunk.
Pregnant adult females, known as “cows,” arrive shortly afterwards and give birth to the pups, or “weaners,” they’ve been carrying since the previous year. Newborn seals weigh about 75 pounds and are 4 feet long.
We’re quite lucky to have the chance to view these magnificent animals today. They were hunted almost to extinction for their blubber, which was used for lamp oil. In 1910, their population was estimated at under 100, but their numbers have now rebounded to upwards of 150,000. 124,000 or so are found in California waters.
If you want to learn more about elephant seals, consider paying a visit to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. It’s the world’s largest marine mammal hospital with up to 130 injured and sick marine animals at any given time. Between February and May the hospital cares for more elephant seal pups, but the hospital also takes in California sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, monk seals, and fur seals. Visitors can reserve a free spot ahead of time to see the exhibits in the visitor center, or take a paid guided tour with some behind-the-scenes action at the hospital ($15 general admission).