Hunted nearly to extinction, the northern elephant seal was given protected status by Mexico in 1922. Since then, the elephant seal population has expanded along the coast of California, including south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse near San Simeon.
Initial sightings of the resurgent population occurred in 1955 on Año Nuevo Island, and records of the first pups being born were in 1961. The numbers have grown drastically since that time, with current reports estimating that over 25,000 seals visit the Piedras Blancas Rookery every year, an expanse of central California coastline that stretches for nearly 6 miles north along Highway 1 from the town of San Simeon.
Northern elephant seals are the largest seal in the northern hemisphere, and the second largest in the world. Adult males range between 14 and 16 feet in length and can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Female elephant seals weigh in around 900 to 1,800 pounds and average out at about 11 feet long. And the pups are not slouches either—they are 70 pounds and 3 to 4 feet at birth.
The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is just off Highway 1, and access to the viewing areas is very close to parking. This is a bit of a good news / bad news scenario: good news that the seals can be appreciated from close-up, and bad news that it’s easy to disturb their habitat. When checking them out, keep in mind that they got there first–they only took a break from these beaches for little while.
Know Before You Go
A good spot for viewing as at the beach about 5 miles further north from the turn-off for San Simeon on Route 1. You'll see a large parking area on your left, running along the beach. At the far end of the lot is a small viewing station. Along with the viewing areas along the coast, there is a Visitor Center and gift shop run by the Friends of the Elephant Seal at Plaza del Cavalier, 250 San Simeon Av, Suite 3B, San Simeon, California 93452.
February is a very exciting month for the elephant seals. Final birthing is going on, pups are being weaned and mating is underway. The beach is typically crowded with dominant bulls guarding their harems of females and pups, and the peak of mating tends to be around Valentine's Day.
AND PLEASE be mindful about disturbing the seals - they have a lot of work to do without gawkers getting in their way.