This weekend Mandy and I went down to her college town of Santa Cruz and walked among 5000 pound Sea Elephants. Santa Cruz is about an hour and a half south of San Francisco if you take the freeways for most of it. We did not take the freeways.
Between San Francisco and Santa Cruz runs a section of PCH-1, the Pacific Coast Highway. If you grew up going to east coast beaches and have never been to California you might need some context. The east coast (at least the southern parts) has long gradual slopes out to the beaches. The sand stretches out, and people can ride bikes, walk, and even drive cars along them.
Contrast this to much of Northern California,where the mountains ram up against the ocean, then plummet in 200 foot cliffs directly down into thrashing waves and rocks. It is breathtaking, and leaves you reeling from the power of nature.
PCH-1 skirts the very edge of these cliffs for hundreds of miles all down the Pacific coast, until the cliffs give way to beaches somewhere near Los Angeles. In some sections, the aforementioned power of nature has beaten the road into temporary submission, and covered in it a rock slide or washed out parts underneath it.
Along PCH-1 is a state park called Año Nuevo. It is here that thousands of Sea Elephants beach themselves and make the sand dunes their mating grounds between December and March. We have been meaning to go see them for a few years, but you can only go out to where they are on a docent guided tour that needs a reservation “up to 56 days in advance”.
With the recent rain and storms, we bet people would not show and there would be extra tickets — we were right. Mandy brought rain pants. I did not. By the end of the two hour hike out and back, I had learned: That these things are born weighing 70 pounds, and then gain 230 pounds in 28 days. Their mother’s milk is 55% fat. They can get up to 5000 pounds and live 14-20 years. An alpha male will fight all the other males, then control a harem of up to 40 females. There are multiple harems spread out along Año Nuevo’s sand dunes.
We got to walk in and among them, but not to close to the main groups – just around the outcasts and “bachelors” who were not alpha that year and the young pups.
We saw a female sea elephant start to leave for the season, and then four 5000 pound males chased her into the ocean and get into a massive fight over who had the right to her. It was surreal.