The Weekly Postcard: Piedras Blancas Rookery

San Simeon has gained its reputation for being home to the flamboyant Hearst Castle, but not many people know that its beach is also home to a big elephant seal colony. Until 1990, only under two dozen elephant seals could be seen here, but then something very strange happened. The next spring, over 400 seals showed up on the beach just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. Why did that happen? Nobody knows, but after that the population continued to grow every year.

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Piedras Blancas lighthouse

Today, the rookery at Piedras Blancas has more than 17,000 elephant seals. “These marine mammals spend eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1,000 to 5,000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours. They migrate thousands of miles, twice a year, to their land based rookery for birthing, breeding and molting,” one of the volunteer guides tells us. You can visit the rookery any time of year; however, during March, August, September and October there are not that many seals on the beach. They leave in March and then return between April to August to molt. aga_8619-2

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Molting elephant seals

In November there is a lot of excitement on the beach at Piedras Blancas. The mature males return for the upcoming breading season. It’s time for flexing some muscles to impress their adversaries.

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Young males fighting for the territory at Piedras Blancas

Also a very interesting time to visit the colony is in winter, when the females return to give birth (mid-December and mid-February.) There are a few times a year when this beach is packed with seals: males, females, juveniles and pups are all crammed into each other, baking in the sun. There is hardly any room for another seal to come ashore. What’s attracting them all here? We don’t know, but we are glad they chose this beach so that we can enjoy them. aga_8585-2 The Piedras Blancas rookery is just adjacent to Highway 1 and is very easy to access. Visiting the colony is free  and it takes about 20-30 minutes. There are several view points that can be reached by walkways, all of them at a short distance from the parking lot. It’s amazing to see all these elephant seals clustered on the beach, observe their mating rituals as they fight over territory, hear their loud calls. Being able to watch a 5,000-pound animal so close up is quite impressive.

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The walkway at Piedras Blancas

aga_8628-2 Piedras Blancas rookery is a great spot to watch these enormous marine mammals from a safe distance as they live and play in their natural habitat.

 

 

 

34 Comments on “The Weekly Postcard: Piedras Blancas Rookery

  1. I visited Hearst Castle back in 09, but we didn’t stop in San Simeon! I’m kicking myself now because I did NOT know about the sea lions! Gosh dang it!

  2. I wonder if they came from farther north. When I lived in San Francisco there was a beach about an hour south where the elephant seals came to breed. It was more controlled than this one and you could only go out and see the animals with a docent. I remember seeing the male posturing. Your photos really captured the feel of the place. Next time we are in California, I think it’s time for a long coastal drive.

    • I remember that time, Rhonda. They would keep you at quite a distance from the animals. This spot is such a great place to observe the elephant seals and their behavior. I’m glad they finally decided to built the walkways.

  3. We love this area! My kids can spend hours watching the seals here. They really are so interesting to watch. We’ve seen them during the summer and in May. It looks like we need to make a winter trip up there. We’d love to see the pups. Love that close up photo.

  4. I adore those elephant seals. They are so funny. Plus, I like how they sleep like nothing else in the world matter. I like when they throw sand (there is a name for that). I have to stop to get a glimpse of them every time I pass by San Simeon.

  5. Oh, Anda, I am so envious that you got to see and photograph the elephant seals! When I was there in April, our group toured Hearst Castle but had no time left to see them before I had to catch my flight. I hope to return someday… Your photos, as usual, are great!

  6. Thanks Anda – I am going to tuck this little piece of information away for our next visit to California. I love seeing animals and seals are great because they don’t run away just as you are about to take photos.

  7. Wow. That’s amazing from a couple of dozen to 17,000. Will definitely visit the rookery, if I ever visit California.

  8. Wow so many elephant seals and you’re so lucky to capture it up close! I will definitely be interested in visiting Piedras Blancas rookery on my next visit to California!!

  9. I wonder why all the seals turned up in the first place, very mysterious! We were lucky to see one on the Isle of Wight by chance, who really seemed to be performing for the cameras!

  10. It is amazing to watch the seals and nice the walkway makes it safe to do so. I am curious why they came here suddenly. We have some places on our coast where the seals come and bask in the sunshine. Lovely post Anda.

  11. I’ve been wanting to visit Hearst Castle for years, and now I have something else to add to my To Do list while I’m there. I like that it’s so conveniently located and that the beach is easily accessible. Perfect price, too.

  12. Shame on us! We’ve gone to the Castle, and driven past the lighthouse, but never pulled into the vista parking lots. We made that trip a few times in May or June as part of our summer pilgrimage to visit family in Carmel, never knowing there was such a spectacle later in the year. Obviously, we’ll have to correct that! Thanks for tipping us off. 🙂

  13. I’ve never been to Piedras Blancas Rookery but definitely want to go in the future!!! I love seeing all those elephant seals basking in the sunshine! It’s really wonderful to hear a story of population growth, for once, as opposed to the stories on countless rising threats to endangered species.

  14. Yes, it IS curious, Anda, how the seals have come to choose this particular beach as homestead ~ much like Northern California sea lions have chosen San Francisco’s Pier 39. Both are fun creatures to watch, aren’t they?

  15. Anda , as far as I remember , long time ago we visited together the place . Mom was there too ! In do not remember
    the seals ! Nice note , I love it !
    Dad.

  16. 17,000 elephant seals – that’s a BIG rookery! It must be quite noisy at Piedras Blancas, what with all their barking. (Maybe smelly too ?) But no doubt, very interesting! We always love taking a water taxi in Cabo San Lucas to see (and hear/smell) the sea lions by the rock Arch formation.

    • It is kind of noisy, indeed, but not smelly. It’s quite an interesting experience to see these huge marine mammals all gathered on that beach.

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