Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the few places on the Pacific Coast where northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirotris) may be observed and studied. Their semi-annual sojourns to the shores of Point Reyes provide a unique opportunity to glimpse the lives and behaviors of these elusive ocean giants.
Northern elephant seals range from the North Pacific, to Baja California, and from Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. By the late 1800s, northern elephant seals had nearly been hunted to extinction. Since then they have been making a gradual comeback, including a breeding population that appeared at Point Reyes National Seashore in 1981. Today, a growing number of elephant seals breed at three sites at Point Reyes including Drake’s Beach, Point Reyes Headland, and South Beach. Since 1995 the park has monitored these animals each year during the breeding season to help understand population changes and management needs, and to develop research, interpretation and enforcement strategies.
During the breeding season, these large marine mammals typically live on beaches. The rest of the year, except for molting periods (when they shed their skin), elephant seals live well off shore (up to 5,000 miles), commonly descending to over 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface. While living in the open ocean, northern elephant seals spend a lot of time diving, up to two hours at a time. They rarely spend more than four minutes at the surface of the water between dives. It is believed that they eat deep-water, bottom-dwelling marine animals such as ratfish, swell sharks, spiny dogfish, eels, rockfish, and squid.
This species is the second largest seal in the world, after the southern elephant seal and are considered a phocid, or true seal, lacking external ear flaps and elongated fore flippers like their cousin the sea lion. Elephant seals are well named because adult males have large noses that resemble an elephant's trunk. Males begin to develop this enlarged nose, or proboscis, at sexual maturity (about three to five years), and it is fully developed by seven to nine years. They have a broad, round face with very large eyes. There is a big difference in size and weight between genders, where adult males may grow over 13 feet in length and weigh up to 4,500 pounds, and females, who are much smaller at 10 feet in length and 1,500 pounds.
Each winter elephant seals arrive at Point Reyes near Chimney Rock's Elephant Seal Overlook. Males arrive first to establish territory and can be seen fighting to establish dominance. During this time, dominant males will often inflate their noses and produce a noise that sounds like a drum to warn lesser males away. Females arrive soon after and give birth to the pups they have been carrying since last year. Pups weigh 75 pounds or more and are about four feet in length. The pups nurse for about 28 days, generally gaining about 10 lbs a day. At this time females will mate with one or more of the dominant males and then return to sea. For the next two months, weaned pups, called "weaners," remain on rookery beaches, venturing into the water for short periods of time, perfecting their swimming and feeding abilities. Eventually, the pups will learn to feed on squid, fish, and occasionally small sharks.
Best Season to View
December - March (breeding season). Shuttle Buses run weekends and holidays, learn more.
Elephant Seal Resources
Become a Winter Wildlife Docent and help promote awareness and protection of northern elephant seals, gray whales, and other marine life by helping visitors view, understand, and appreciate these species. Read docent observations here.