Epic Encounters of the Natural Kind on California’s Central Coast

Adult Male Elephant Seals

Adult Male Elephant Seals

If you have never seen the mighty elephant sea lions up close on the beach near San Simeon, you are missing out on one of the all-time, heart-thumping nature experiences along the California coastline.  These massive blubbery creatures recline  in the sand and bask in the sun off Highway 1, just seven miles north of San Simeon. They also come to shore to mate and birth pups which usually occurs the last two weeks of February. The males, 12-to 16-feet long and weighing anywhere from 3000 to 5000 pounds, have bulbous trunk-like noses thus giving the seals their appropriate moniker. The females, diminutive by comparison, are a mere nine to 12 feet long and weight 900 to 1800 pounds. These incredible animals nearly went extinct in the 1800s from overhunting, but luckily a small colony of less than 100 survived off Baja, and the species has since repopulated thanks to further protection from the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972.

Today, 17,000 exist and a visit to this Central Coast rookery is a mind-blowing encounter with the powerful beasts and a laugh-a-minute show without the $300 SeaWorld price tag. The massive males joust and rear up in combat, slamming their multi-ton bodies into each other to establish the alpha hierarchy within the group and win over the sweet-eyed females.  The females nurse their offspring for 24 to 28 days then depart, leaving the weaned pups to teach themselves how to swim before they migrate and hunt for delicious edibles like squid. The rookery is a cacophony of grunts, snorts, belches, bleats and trumpeting but entertaining to say the least.

In addition to the elephant seals, the Central Coast is also the place to witness the black and gold Monarch butterflies which cluster in the limbs of a Eucalyptus grove at Pismo State Beach and Pacific Grove. Upwards of 20,000 butterflies descend upon this area from October to February, having journeyed more than 1,000 miles to finally roost for winter.

Gray whales also travel these waters en route to Baja to birth their calves, so be sure to scan the sea for whale spouts and tails.   Boat trips out of Morro Bay afford nature enthusiasts close-up encounters with these barnacled gentle giants. In April and May, the mothers return north with their calves and often swim closer to shore making for good sighting opportunities.

For more info about where to stay, what to see in the Central Coast and sample day trips, check out: http://winecoastcountry.com

Latest posts by Ann Wycoff

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