Feb 24, 2023

Wildlife Spotlight: Sharing our Coast with Northern Elephant Seals

Cover photo courtesy of Max Fowles, Friends of the Elephant Seal 

This is the time of year when northern elephant seals get ready to head back out to the ocean, signaling the end of their season on the central coast. With content courtesy of California State Parks, Friends of the Elephant Seal, the National Park Service, and the Marine Mammal Center, we’ve compiled a blog post to answer some frequently asked questions about the elephant seals, their lives, and their interactions with people.  

two male elephant seals fight on the beach. There is another elephant seal in the foreground.
Two male elephant seals fight to defend their harem and territory. Photo courtesy of Michael Baird.

Why Do Elephant Seals Come To Our Shores?

Northern elephant seals come to rookeries along the California and Baja California coasts during the winter to give birth, nurse their babies, rest, and breed. Females focus on caring for their babies, who they will nurse for about a month as the baby grows from its birth weight of 70 pounds to its weaned weight of 300 pounds. Males spend their energy on maintaining control of their section of beach and their “harem” of females.

Several dozen elephant seals lie on the beach.
Elephant seals resting at Año Nuevo. While on the beach, adult seals do not eat or drink for extended periods of time. Photo courtesy of Año Nuevo State Park.

Are Northern Elephant Seals Endangered?

Northern elephant seals were hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century for their oil-rich blubber. In 1892 there were less than a hundred Northern elephant seals, and by 1900 they were believed to be extinct. Fortunately, there was one remaining population off the coast of Baja California, and this small group repopulated the species to its current size of about 100,000 individuals. They are no longer endangered, but they are protected by state law and the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Several dozen elephant seals lie on the beach. The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse is visible in the background.
Over 25,000 elephant seals visit Piedras Blancas each year. Photo courtesy of Phillip Colla.

What Should I Do If I Encounter An Elephant Seal On The Beach?

While most seals will stay at the rookeries, you may occasionally see individuals on other beaches in the area. The Marine Mammal Center recommends remaining at least 50 feet away from the seal (that’s at least four seal lengths away), but more space is always better. 

A female elephant seal rests her face on a baby elephant seal.
It’s important to give a seal lots of space because if it feels stressed out, it will waste energy moving to a new spot or leaving the beach entirely. Photo courtesy of Año Nuevo State Park.

If you are with a dog, it’s important to keep the dog away from the seal. Both dogs and seals can carry diseases that can transfer to each other if they get too close or even through the sand.  

Two people and a dog stand with their backs to the camera. They are looking out onto the beach. Several elephant seals are visible in the background.
Elephant seals have large teeth and a powerful bite, and can be a danger to dogs if they feel threatened. Photo courtesy of Kathleen Curtis.

If you are concerned that a seal is sick or injured, you can call the Marine Mammal Center hotline at 415-289-7325 (SEAL), or NOAA’s hotline at 866-767-6114. Note the exact location of the animal, as well as its condition and any tags or other markings. 

Where Do Elephant Seals Go When They Leave Our Shores?

In February, females will return to the sea to feed after fasting for five weeks, leaving their weaned pups behind on the beach. In March, the adult males follow suit. During this time, the pups stay close to the beach as they learn to swim and feed. Throughout the spring and summer, adults and juveniles of both sexes will return to the beaches to molt.

A young elephant seal has its mouth open. Its skin and fur are falling off in chunks, with new fur visible underneath.
During molting, an elephant seal’s skin and fur falls off in patches and a new layer appears underneath. Photo courtesy of Friends of the Elephant Seal.

After molting, the seals will return to the ocean to feed. Just as the biggest males are leaving the beach in September, the juveniles will return for the fall and winter season at the rookery. Then the season begins again with the return of the adult males in November. 

A map of Western North America, with orange and blue dots and lines, showing the migration patterns of elephant seals.
This map shows the migration patterns of male and female Northern elephant seals. Males tend to feed closer to shore, while females will swim much further out into the open ocean in search of food. Graphic courtesy of Dr. Sarah Kienle.

How Can I Learn More About Elephant Seals And Get Involved?

Organizations like Friends of the Elephant Seal and the Marine Mammal Center are always looking for volunteers, members, and donations to support their important work. Take the pledge to become a responsible wildlife watcher, and learn more about respectful marine wildlife viewing on the NOAA Fisheries website.

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