ELEPHANT SEAL colony at A¿o Nuevo became established in the 1960s. The seals had been nearly wiped out in the previous century by hunters seeking blubber for oil. Protected since the 1920s, elephant seals now thrive along the Pacific coast. Image: Frank S. Balthis
It is not often that you can get close to a red-necked, huge-nosed, bellowing, two-and-a-half-ton, 14-foot-long behemoth and his cronies--particularly if he is in the midst of courtship or fighting off a foe. But at A¿o Nuevo State Reserve, a 4,000-acre park on California's rough and rocky coast, such privileged views are common. Thousands of northern elephant seals haul out along the beaches at different times of year, providing visitors with an up-close-and-personal look at the lives of these mammoth creatures and of other ocean-dwelling mammals as well.
A¿o Nuevo is a beautiful spot, regardless of what you come to see or when you come to see it. The elephant seal beaches, and one of the few remaining true sand dunes in this region, lie at the far end of long, wide fields and some shrubby enclaves--roughly a mile and a half from the entrance of the reserve. This low vegetation is a raptor lover's haven, hunted by northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks, golden eagles, white-tailed kites and American kestrels, among others. Indeed, because of the varied habitats in the park--and because it falls along the Pacific flyway, a major migration route--some 240 species of birds can been found at A¿o Nuevo over the course of the year.
This article was originally published with the title War and Peace among the Pinnipeds.