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Family Adventures: The Elephant Seals of Aņo Nuevo
By Janis Cooke Newman
The mother elephant seal stays with her baby for just one month," Docent Mike tells the children, "and then he's on his own. Can you imagine if your mom did that?"
The children stare at him with wide eyes and then turn their heads to glance at their moms, standing in the sand with arms full of raincoats and extra pairs of dry shoes.
"Twenty percent of the elephant seal pups don't make it off the beach," Docent Mike continues. "Eighty percent of them don't survive to 4 years old."
One little boy reaches for his mom's hand. A girl in ladybug boots tries to climb up her mother's leg. Even my independent 6-year-old, Alex, checks to make sure I'm still standing there, holding his spare polar fleece.
"I had no idea this was going to be so full of the harsh realities of nature," whispers my friend Connie.
We're gathered at a small ranger station about a quarter mile from the beach at Año Nuevo State Reserve, and our Darwinistic docent, Mike Madden, is preparing us for the guided walk out to see the elephant seals.
Each year about mid-December, male elephant seals arrive on the beach at Año Nuevo. Not long after, pregnant females join them to deliver their pups and then mate with the males. All this pupping and breeding activity goes on until the end of February, when the adults return to the sea, leaving behind hundreds of baby seals. The pups --at least the 80 percent who don't get eaten by sharks or find some other way to die -- spend the month of March playing in the dunes and learning to swim, before they too return to the sea.
During the pupping and breeding season (Dec. 15 to March 31), the only way to see the seals is by taking a 21/2- to 3-hour guided walk with a naturalist like Docent Mike.
Before we head out to the beach, Docent Mike reviews what may be, for the kids at least, the harshest realities of nature.
"There's no going to the bathroom until we come back to the ranger station. There's no eating allowed on the trail or at the beach. Once we've started, you're committed to the walk. There's no returning by yourself. And since this is a nature reserve, there is absolutely no rock or shell collecting."
"What happens if I just take one rock?" a small boy in a yellow slicker asks his older brother.
"They feed you to the seals," the brother replies.
We set off down the path, the grownups walking around the puddles, the kids sloshing through them. The air is briny and tastes like oysters. Beach grass and brambles and something that looks like poison oak line the trail.
At a bluff which overlooks a ruined lighthouse on a small island just offshore, we stop so that Docent Mike can explain the mating rituals of the elephant seal.
"The male elephant seals fight for the right to breed with a harem of females," he says. "But male elephant seals will mate with anything, so even the losers will try to mate with another male's harem."
"Do the males help the females raise the pups?" asks my friend Connie.
"Once the breeding's over," says Docent Mike, "the males are done with the whole thing."
"That is not how people do it," I whisper to Alex.
As we head down the path, we hear a deep gargling that sounds very much like the flushing of a cranky toilet.
"That's an elephant seal," Docent Mike tells us.
It's an amazingly undignified sound.
Back on the trail, we round a dune and come upon a beach filled with the large inert shapes of elephant seals. The seals loll in the sand or lie half-submerged in the tide pools like enormous blubbery lumps.
"A full-grown elephant seal is approximately the same length and weight as a Ford Explorer," Docent Mike tells us.
As we walk between the slumbering gray mounds, a male slowly lifts his head, showing off the long bulbous nose for which the elephant seals are named.
"He looks like he has a penis on his face," Alex tells his friend Aidan. The two boys are so overcome with hilarity at this witticism, they can barely remain upright.
"This will be our escape route," Docent Mike points to a narrow path between the dunes, "in case one of the males charges us."
I look at the big blobs of elephant seal strewn over the beach. They do not look capable of lifting a flipper, much less charging anything. But as we make our way down the beach, a Ford Explorersized male suddenly rears up his thick chest and begins barreling across the sand toward us.
"Run!" shouts Docent Mike.
We stumble and fall on the loose sand, moving about half as fast and a quarter as gracefully as the lumbering sea mammal behind us. Fortunately, elephant seals are fast and lazy, and Mr. Penis-face gives up the chase after about 30 feet. He collapses back onto the sand, leaving behind him a track that looks as if it had been made by an SUV.
Sticking closer to Docent Mike, we climb another dune. As we rest at the top, we see an entire beach covered with mother elephant seals and their pups.
"That mom has two babies," says a little girl in pink boots, pointing to two small seals curled up against the rounded shape of their mother.
"One of those babies will die," Docent Mike tells her. "Elephant seal mothers have only enough milk for one pup."
"Won't another female take it?" my friend Connie asks.
"No," says Docent Mike.
"Will someone at the park rescue it?"
"We don't interfere with nature."
We stand on the dune, watching the two little seals nuzzling their mother.
"That's sad," Aidan tells Alex.
"That's how it is," replies my stoic Russian-born son. "I'm going to die, you're going to die, everybody's going to die."
"Easy to be blasé about it," I tell Connie, "when you're an only child."
On the mile-and-a-half walk back to the visitor's center, I overhear the mom of the girl in the pink boots trying to explain survival of the fittest. "In nature," she says, "only the strongest animals get to live."
"But that's not fair!" protests the little girl.
Back at the visitor's center, wandering among stuffed seals and sea-life coloring books, I wonder if Alex has been at all disturbed by the harsh realities of nature witnessed on our walk.
However, after he spends his allowance on postcards of blood-spattered male elephant seals and an open-mouthed shark, I decide he's probably come to terms with it.
Seeing the Seals
Año Nuevo State Reserve is located on Highway 1 between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, about 11/2 hours south of San Francisco.
During the breeding and pupping season (Dec. 15 March 31), only the people on guided walks are allowed on the beach at Año Nuevo. You must have advance tickets ($4, children under 3 free) in order to go on one of the walks. Tickets can be purchased by calling 1-800-444-4445 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., seven days a week. Tickets sell out early, but it's sometimes possible to show up at the Año Nuevo ranger station and take the place of any no-shows. Rainy days, weekdays, and early mornings are your best bets.
From April through November, you can visit the beach -- and still occasionally see elephant seals -- on your own. Just stop by the ranger station before heading out to pick up a permit.
If getting charged by male elephant seals makes you hungry, be sure to visit Duarte's Tavern in the town of Pescadero (202 Stage Road, 650-879-0464), for lunch or dinner. Duarte's is known for its artichoke soup and homemade pies. The place also serves fresh fish and plenty of kid food at reasonable prices.
Janis Cooke Newman is the author of The Russian Word for Snow (St. Martin's Press). Her book has just been published in paperback.