The Charming Elephant Seals of Pt. Reyes National Seashore

Elephant seals have the look of an animal put together by a committee. It gives them a certain charm. We found this large fellow with his pronounced proboscis at Drake’s Beach. He’d come ashore at Pt. Reyes National Seashore looking for love.

Pt. Reyes National Seashore is located some 30 miles north of San Francisco. Peggy and I went there last week to celebrate my birthday. It’s been a go-to place for me since the 60s. In addition to spectacular scenery, great hikes, yummy food, and one of the best small bookstores I’ve ever been in, we were entertained by the wildlife: tule elk, a pair of sushi eating coyotes, and elephant seals (plus some cows).  Today, I want to do a teaser on our trip by featuring the elephant seals. I’ll get back to the rest after I finish my Harris Beach series. 

Elephant seals are amazing creatures that spend up to 80% of their lives at sea— 90 % of it underwater!  If that doesn’t seem remarkable enough, consider this: their normal dives for food range between 1000 and 2000 feet deep (305 to 610 meters). They can dive for up to an hour and a half before returning to the surface for three to five minutes of breathing. Semi-annual feeding binges take the males on a 13,000-mile roundtrip journey to the Aleutian Islands and females on a 11,000-mile roundtrip into the North Pacific.

They were absent from Pt. Reyes for 150 years. In fact, they were close to absent forever. Like whales, they came close to being hunted to extinction for their oil. Processing the blubber from one bull can produce up to 25 gallons. They were saved because the Mexico and the US banned hunting them in the 1920s. Gradually, they have returned to their old breeding grounds. When I first started visiting Pt. Reyes in the 60s, they were unheard of in the area. Today there are over 3000 that return annually to breed.

The Park Service had set up a barrier to separate the seals from the people who had come to admire them at Drake’s Beach. Those closest to the barrier were bulls. You can tell by their size and uniquely shaped noses. One had crossed the barrier and was worrying the rangers. “He’s escaping from the other bulls,” a ranger explained. Maybe.

This large bull had crossed through the barriers at Drakes Beach and was pointed toward the snack bar. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

A little girl next to me exclaimed, “I think he is heading to the snack bar to get fish sticks!”

“I’d bet on ice cream,” I responded. “Look at how big he is.” The girl looked at me dubiously. “Fish sticks” she insisted.

Peggy and I spent an hour watching these wonderful creations of nature who are so competent at sea and ungainly on land. They move like an inchworm, using their dorsal flippers to pull their front half forward and then using their rear flippers to push the rest of their body along like a rolling wave. Imagine moving several tons of fat. The ones we watched would make two or three of these moves and then collapse to rest.

Given their trunk-like noses and appealing eyes, Peggy and I were particularly attracted to the looks on their faces.

Is this fellow being coy?
Check out the big brown eyes! The size of the eyes helps the elephant seal see in the dark depths of the ocean. The whiskers apparently help as well in the search for food. He had lifted his head to check us out. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
And then returned to his resting position. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A side glance. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
A bit shy, perhaps. Maybe he thought that the log was hiding him.
Size matters. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
This was interesting. The skin of the elephant seals is sensitive to the sun. They cope by throwing sand over their bodies with their flippers, as seen in this photo.
Sometimes a little stretch really feels good! (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Peggy caught some of the girls sunbathing out near the ocean…
Drake’s Bay was named for Sir Francis Drake who reputedly visited the area in 1759. There’s another bull on the left— looking sluggish.
I’ll conclude today with this elephant seal that was making its way back toward the ocean. I decided he was waving goodbye with his flipper. I’ll return to the tide pools of Harris Beach in Oregon next week. Are you aware that groups of sea anemones go to war with each other?


Monday’s Blog-a-Book… “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me”: I move outside in the summer to enjoy nature but hire the family’s dogs and cats to protect me from the ghosts.

Wednesday’s Blog-a-Book… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: Held at gunpoint, I consider the odds of running over the gunman versus getting shot.

When Elephant Seals Tell Jokes: The Wednesday Photo Essay

Did you hear the one about an elephant seal, a Christmas seal, and a basset hound walking into a bar.
Ha, ha, ha, ha.

A while back Peggy and I were driving north from somewhere, maybe San Diego, when we drove past Hearst Castle and came to Piedras Blancas. It was full of sunbathers, somewhat weight challenged— and nude. Naturally we had to stop and break out our cameras.

The beach was a little crowded.
But everyone seemed happy. Some were even cuddling up.
Can it get any better.
Maybe. Few things are more pleasurable that scratching an itch.
Ah, that feels soooo good!
Of course it’s kind of hard to beat taking a dirt bath…
Especially if it is a full body bath!
Maybe a nice long nap in the sun. Yawn! Catching fish is such hard work.
You know how it is when someone else yawns. Are my tonsils pretty?
Speaking of pretty, here I am. How can anyone resist my dark brown eyes and gorgeous whiskers? Most girls would die to have whiskers like mine.
Check me out!
What do you mean this is a nude beach for elephant seals only! (Do we have trouble in Paradise?)
Like here we are all sleeping and someone starts stretching while challenging us to touch our toes and lecturing us on the value of exercise.
And then there is this lady who is disturbing us all by screaming, and screaming, and screaming…
Like what is her problem? Wait could it be? Is it possible? Is she having a baby? All is forgiven. (Well, possibly the elephant seal she is having a baby on might have a problem.)
We can relax again.
And go back to sleep.
But who can resist passing on a good joke. Have you heard the one about an elephant seal, a Christmas seal and a basset hound walking into a bar?
Bye, bye. Thanks for wandering through time and place with Curt and Peggy.

NEXT POSTS: On Friday, we will visit Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to wrap up the Georgia O’Keeffe series. On Monday we will start a new one as we look into the strange eyes of shamans and check out other petroglyphs.

The Marvelous Creatures of Piedras Blancas

Sleep over? Each year upwards to 60,000 Elephant Seals visit the Beaches of Piedras Blancas in Central California to mate, shed and have pups. "Are they dead?" I heard a young boy ask his mother. Let's put it this way, when your body is made up of one to five thousand pounds of blubber, you don't move around much.

Pop Quiz: What creature can weigh over two tons, have a two-foot long nose, dive up to 5000 feet, spend eight to ten months of the year on the open sea, migrate upwards to twelve thousand miles, leave a track like a two-ton caterpillar, and mate with dozens of winsome females on or around Valentines Day?

If you guessed the adult male Elephant Seal, you guessed right.

These intriguing animals were all but hunted to extinction for their valuable oil in the late 1800s. Today their numbers are estimated at 170,000.

Close to 10 percent consider the beaches of Piedras Blancas on the central coast of California their home, or rookery if wish to use the technical term. A couple of dozen showed up unexpectedly in 1990. Today their population is pushing 17,000.

Peggy and I stopped by for a visit on our way home from San Diego last week. Seeing the seals in their natural habitat is an incredible experience that we highly recommend. You can learn more about these animals and the best time to visit from Friends of the Elephant Seal at

Cameras are a must. We took over a hundred photos during our visit. I’ve posted some of the more amusing below. I couldn’t help adding appropriate captions.

"I don't care how much you pray for a new fur coat for Christmas, I am not listening." The Elephant Seals don't mean to entertain us but watching their antics is sure to bring a smile.


There is always pleasure in scratching a really bad itch. Check out the two Elephant Seals below. Pure ecstasy.

"Ah, that feels good."


"And this feels even better!"


"Go that way." Ever suffer from a feeling of rejection? This certainly seems to be the case here. Although Elephant Seals are social animals that crowd together on the beach, they can also be quite territorial, especially during mating season.


"Mother always said to use sunblock." Using their flippers, Elephant Seals are often seen flipping sand up over their body. Peggy took this rather artistic photo. Note the seal outlined in the back. The purpose for the dirt bath is indeed to provide protection from the sun. Elephant Seals spend 8-10 months a year migrating in the cold waters of the North Pacific traveling as far north as the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Most of their time is spent under water diving from 20 minutes to an hour and surfacing for only three minutes. No wonder the sun feels hot!


I caught the flipper action in this photo.


"My Chiropractor suggested this new back stretching exercise."


How could anyone resist this toothy grin?


"I am the king!" The size of your nose and the loudness of your roar matters in the Elephant Seal world. Big males become quite feisty during mating season as they gather harems of up to 50 females. As one might imagine, battles between two ton creatures can turn rather nasty. If your nose is big enough, up to two feet long, and your roar loud enough, other males may choose to let you have your way with out a battle, however.


Sleeping cheek to cheek. If that isn't a look of contentment, I've never seen one.


"After a hard day of sleeping, I like to lay back and put my feet up in the air."


If you came across these tracks without knowing who made them, you would probably vacate the premises.


"Did you hear the story about the Rabbi, the Priest and the Baptist Minister?"


"I just love the smell of fish breath." Actually, these guys fast for weeks on end while on shore. There may not be much fish breath left by the time they are ready to return to the ocean.