Montana de Oro State Park
With seven miles of spectacular shoreline, Montana de Oro is one of the largest state parks in California. At only 15 miles from our campground at El Chorro Regional Park, it made for an easy day trip.
We spent several hours walking the Bluff Trail, exploring tide pools. We were also treated to the sight of dozens of gray whales. Every winter, the whales pass by as they migrate from Alaska to Baja California. In the warm waters there, the whales give birth before returning to Alaska in the spring.
We caught glimpses of the backs, heads, fins, and tails of the enormous creatures as they fed offshore. The whales turn onto their sides to scoop up sediment from the ocean floor, which they then filter to get the goodies they’re after—mostly tiny crustaceans. The best way to spot the whales, though, is by their spouts, which can rise 15 feet into the air. I always thought a whale spout was a fountain of water, but found out it’s actually steam created by the whale forcefully exhaling warm, moist air.
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
On a cool, foggy morning we drove about 45 miles north to visit the biggest elephant seal rookery on the West Coast. We were greeted by a rude symphony of belches, grunts, snorts, and the trumpeting of bull seals staking their territorial claims.
Hunted for their blubber to use as lamp oil in the 1800’s, the northern elephant seal was almost extirpated. Fortunately, the Mexican government stepped in to protect the last small colony on Guadalupe Island in 1922. Thanks to conservation efforts, the seals have made a roaring comeback.
These unique marine mammals spend eight to ten months in the open ocean and migrate thousands of miles twice a year to their rookeries. In the winter they arrive for birthing and breeding, and in spring/summer, they come to molt. While at sea, they dive 1000-5000 feet for up to two hours to feed, and spend just a few minutes at the surface before diving again.
There’s no doubt as to why they’re named elephant seals. They are enormous creatures. The males are 14-16 feet long and weigh up to two-and-a-half tons; females are much smaller at 10 feet in length and 1,500 pounds.
As they mature, the males grow long, pendulous noses that look like an elephant’s trunk. The dominant males inflate their noses, throw their heads back, and produce a thunderous, drum-like sound that reverberates long distances and warns lesser males away. If the warning isn’t intimidating enough, they engage in chest bumping battles to establish who will be king of the harem.
Our visit to the rookery happened to coincide with the highest tide of the year. This created pandemonium for the seals as they crowded together on the beach. We witnessed the birth of a baby seal, and then the heartbreaking loss as the baby was washed out to sea by the raging tide. A bit farther down the beach, two bulls fought a violent territorial battle.
We witnessed plenty of sweet moments, too, including the gentleness of the mothers with their babies and watching the babies nurse.
The baby seals gain an astonishing 10 pounds a day on their mother’s rich milk. Although elephant seals only birth one pup each year, some greedy little pups—called super weaners—finagle milk from more than one mother. In only 28 days, the pups are weaned. The mother mates and heads out to sea, destined to return 11 months later to begin the cycle again.