What can be more exciting than observing and photographing Northern Elephant Seals during their pupping season? Where there are literally thousand of pups, moms, and huge males, known as “Beach Masters” patrolling their harem. To actually observe one of these little guys being born, wiggling their way into their new world is truly amazing. I do use the term “little guys” loosely seeing full grown males can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, and a new born pup weighs between 55-70 pounds.
It was not long ago during the California Gold Rush Era of 1849, when these magnificent animals were nearly hunted to near extinction for their blubber. In fact they were thought to be extinct, that is until around 200 Northern Elephant Seals were discovered at Guadalupe Island, 220 miles south from San Diego, ca. In 1922 the Mexican government were the first to protect the Elephant Seals by patrolling the waters around the island, as well as posting a guard on the island. In 1972, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA.) Since then their comeback has been quite amazing, reaching numbers of about 150,000 and people come from all over to catch a glimpse of these majestic animals.
Up to 20ft
Up to 9.5 tons
Winter months, is universally the best time to photograph Northern Elephant Seals.
Mid December to mid February, Mid January is the best time, as lots of pups have already been born, and lots of mom’s are still arriving on the beaches, trying to find a suitable spot to give birth.
Molting: An Elephant Seal will haul itself out of the water from 25 to 28 days in order to shed all of its fur.
Mid March is when the molting will begin. April through May is when most adult females come ashore for their molt, accompanied by some sub-adult males. The majority of the sub-adult males, however, come ashore during May and June. Then, finally, the adult males come ashore starting in the later part of June and continuing through August, with a few even staying into September.
Northern Elephant Seals come ashore during the winter months (Dec. through March) at three popular locations to mate, give birth, and to molt along the California Coast
Located not far from the town of Pescadero, 45 minutes north of Santa Cruz, and 1.5 hours south of San Francisco. This is a guided tour and tickets are $7 per person, children 3 years and under are free. The tours run everyday, rain or shine beginning on December 15th and continue until March 31st. Parking is $10 inside the park.
The main Rookery is located on HWY 1, about seven miles north of San Simenon, on the left side of the highway. If you have gone past the lighthouse, then you have gone to far. Parking is free at the spacious parking lot, and you can view the Northern Elephant Seals just over the bluff for free, north or south of the parking lot. Knowledgeable Docents are available to answer questions.
Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock is a great place to view these majestic wonders of the sea. Viewing is from afar, not closeup like the Piedras Blancas Rookery.
The most important is to Respect the barriers and signs that are placed around the rookery. We all want to get that great close up shot, but never at the cost of our safety, or the safety of the Elephant Seals. The females are extremely protective of their pups, and the big males are very protective of their harem, and believe it or not a large male Elephant Seal can really move pretty fast for short bursts on land if he feels threatened. Another common sense restriction is Do not Harass or throw Objects at the seals to get them to look in your direction. Northern Elephant Seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The weather on the California coast can vary from day to day, and can present fog, rain, wind, and sun. It is best to keep a close eye on the forecast on the area you have chosen to visit. Bring lots of layers, and proper rain gear. As I was once told, “It is always best to have extra gear and not need it, than to need it and not have it”.
Camera: DSLR capable of manual settings
Lens: 300mm lens with a 1.4x Teleconverter, or 400mm with Image Stabilization is preferred
400mm is ideal for the up-close facial expression shots. I choose to shoot my 400mm Image Stabilization (IS) lens, because I don’t shoot with a tripod while photographing the Elephant Seals. I am on the move quite a bit, and I find it at times to be difficult to get at a good angle with the fence railings and crowds. The Image stabilization on the long lenses compensate for the camera shake from hand holding it.
*Note: No need to buy what you don't have - you can always RENT it!