Walking down the dirt path, I heard a cacophony of what sounded like children squealing in delight. The more steps I took, the louder the sounds. It was clear when I saw the creatures that they were not children.
These were the famed Elephant Seals at Point Reyes National Seashore.
They alternately sounded like kids, a tuba and someone make very loud belching. On a recent visit, my companions and I thought we had heard just about every sound possible, when a new screech was emitted by a large group of sunbathing seals.
March is a good time to see elephant seals at Point Reyes during their mating and pupping seasons. You also may see gray whales migrating north in the Pacific Ocean.
You can view the males (bulls), females (cows), juveniles and babies (pups) at Point Reyes at different times throughout the year.
From December through March, you can see many elephant seals from Elephant Seal Overlook at Drakes Bay and at the boathouse, both near Chimney Rock. The breeding colony numbers nearly 900.
The males are the first to arrive in December to stake a claim on the beach. Then pregnant females begin to arrive to give birth to one pup. This month and in March, cows who have mated start to leave local beaches. Their fat, weaned pups, however, will stay behind on beaches for as long as 12 weeks.
You also can see seals at Point Reyes when they come ashore to molt in April through July or juveniles in the fall. (See wheel chart at end.)
In January at Drakes Bay near Chimney Rock, I saw many cows, pups and bulls from the Elephant Seal Overlook and some rather rambunctious bulls near the boathouse. The bulls were competing in male dominance contests. I posted this video I took of some bulls in an Alpha male contest on Twitter today.
The park, which has monitored the seals for 30 years, posts weekly elephant seal updates online. On weekends and holidays, docents at Elephant Seal Overlook are armed with binoculars, spotting scopes and information.
Point Reyes is one of about a dozen worldwide sites where northern elephant seals breed. It wasn’t always that way. The seals returned to Point Reyes in the early 1970s after being absent for over 150 years.
On the same day in January, I also spied a few California gray whale spouts looking from the Point Reyes lighthouse. There and the area around Chimney Rock are great whale viewing spots.
You often can see spouts (to breathe) and flukes (tails) of some of the 20,000 gray whales as they migrate past the Point Reyes Peninsula. A gray whale can grow to about 50 feet long and weigh up to 40 tons. Each year, the whales swim up to 13,000 miles — from the cold, deep waters near Alaska to the warm, shallow lagoons of Baja California, Mexico and back — the longest migration of any mammal.
Mid-March is when the whales’ northern migration peaks at Point Reyes and when you can see mothers and calves traveling closer to shore for protection. (Their southern migration peaks around mid-January.)
You can also view gray whales in late April and early May. Instead of returning to Alaska, some whales hang out at places like Point Reyes to feed during the summer.
If you go
The elephant seals have become so popular that during busy winter weekends (usually Jan. 1 to Easter) and holidays, the park operates a shuttle bus ($7) from the Drakes Beach parking lot to the lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas. When the shuttle is operating, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from South Beach to the lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas is closed. Go online or call 415-464-5100 for a recording of shuttle information.
Keep in mind that part of Drakes Beach is temporarily closed (from the southern edge of the cove in front of the Ken Patrick Visitor Center to the Elephant Seal Overlook) through March 15 to protect elephant seals during pupping season.
In addition, part of the Chimney Rock Fish Dock area (from the gate at the end of Chimney Rock Road to the fish dock area, including adjacent beaches) is closed through March 31 due to nursing elephant seal pups.
Whales and seals are just some of the 1,500 species of plants and animals that can be found on Point Reyes’ 71,000 acres.