Enjoy watching Elephant seals, but from a safe distance

Northern elephant seals were once thought to be extinct following decades of intense hunting beginning in the 1700’s. Fortunately, in the early 20th century, a scientific expedition from the California Academy of Sciences discovered a colony of approximately 30 northern elephant seals on the Isla de Guadalupe off Mexico.

This remnant population became the focus of international conservation efforts, and the animals successfully rebounded to over 200,000 along the coast from Central California to Baja Mexico. Two of the major elephant seal rookeries can be found about 50 miles south of San Francisco at Año Nuevo and at Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon. The population of elephant seals at Piedras Blancas has recently surpassed the population at Año Nuevo with an estimated population of over 23,000 animals present during January and February each year.

male elephant seal

A male elephant seal barks to warn other males away. Photo by Jim Milbury, NOAA Fisheries

As the number of elephant seals has increased, so has the potential for humans to interact, whether intentionally or unintentionally, with these animals. Despite their sometimes docile and clumsy appearance, elephant seals can be extremely quick and sometimes vicious if humans, or their pets, get too close.

public watching elephant seals

A public area allows safe viewing without interaction with the elephant seals. Photo by Jim Milbury, NOAA Fisheries

The months of December and January pose an additional hazard for humans as the male elephant seals, known as bulls, come ashore to mate with the females. During this time, males fiercely compete with one another to establish harems of females and can be quite aggressive to anyone who ventures too close. In addition, females may be overly protective of their newly born pups, especially if a person comes between the mother and her offspring.

cranky female elephant sales

Elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon. Photo by Jim Milbury, NOAA Fisheries

It is important for the public to always observe these animals from a safe distance and follow the viewing guidelines below. In addition, all marine mammals, like elephant seals, are protected under federal law and anyone harassing [i] these animals may be subject to prosecution under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To safely view elephant seals, follow these guidelines:

To report a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, please call the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

For more information on northern elephant seals, please visit these websites:

Northern Elephant Seals

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Public Service Announcement

California Department of Parks and Recreation: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=26424

Friends of the Elephant Seal

Photos of Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas

All photos by Jim Milbury, NOAA Fisheries

[i] Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the term "harassment" means any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.