Año Nuevo State Reserve
Narrated by Russ Christoff

Continuing 20 miles north from Santa Cruz on Highway 1, I reached Año Nuevo State Reserve.

Best known as a protected breeding site for the Northern Elephant Seal, this State Reserve covers many acres of land.

The elephant seals found here are the largest members of the seal family in the Northern Hemisphere and can reach up to 16 feet, weighing in at 3 tons.

At different seasons throughout the year, these animals leave the sea to mate, give birth and molt, creating a spectacle that draws visitors from around the world.

Like Wilder Ranch, this property by the sea was once pasture land for farming and livestock.

Remnants of the of the time when the Steel family lived here can still be seen,

especially at the old barn, which was converted to a visitor’s center and where the public now gathers for permits and tours at this day use park.

Inside visitors will find a ticket counter and information on all the aspects of Año Nuevo, which include the natural and cultural history of the park.

A very good bookstore is available with some material on Año Nuevo and the California coastline for those who want to delve further.

Because the acreage by the coast has been set aside as a wildlife protection area, it can only be visited by permit or tour.

Breeding season is a popular time to visit and occurs December through April.

At this time of the year public access to the Elephant Seal area is restricted to daily guided tours. All guided tours are confined to small groups and require advance reservations.

The 3 mile sandy hike to and from the Elephant Seals can be very cool and windy, so be sure to dress appropriately and bring plenty of drinking water if you plan to visit.

As we toured the expansive dunes area, the Ranger, Kevin, talked about the Elephant Seals:

Ranger Kevin: Well, Año Nuevo is a very safe place where they can come ashore each year to have their babies on the shore

and then during the spring and the summer, the seals return here to shed their fur, they ‘molt’.

Russ Christoff: What is the largest number of seals you’ll get at any one time?

Ranger Kevin: During the breeding session, is when we usually reach our population peak and it’s about 4500 animals. And this year we had almost 1700 babies born in the rookery.

Russ Christoff: Are there certain times of the year that are better for viewing the Elephant Seals than others?

Ranger Kevin: You know, there really are seals here year round at Año Nuevo and, depending on the time of year that you come, you’ll see different things.

If you want to see the breeding and the fighting during the breeding season, come during the winter months December through March.

If you want to see moms and younger animals, then the spring months are good months for that.

If you want to see the great, big, adult males, with their huge noses, come back in the summer months July and August.

And the fall is kind of a quiet time. That’s when the younger pups that were born in the winter come back to haul out on the beaches.

And that’s usually when the seal count is down to its lowest.

Russ Christoff: Can people go up to the elephant seals?

Ranger Kevin: You know, just for the animals own safety and well being, we try to ask people to stay back a minimum distance which in California right now is 25 feet.

The Elephant Seal, they are an animal that spends most of their life out in the ocean.

So when they do come up out of the ocean and on to the beaches it’s a very foreign environment for them.

So they usually pick areas on the coastline where it’s remote, where there is not a lot of people.

So we try to give them what they need to survive in their habitat.

Russ Christoff: Now, I noticed that there is a house out on the island there, is it for sale? Because that would be a great place to live.

Ranger Kevin: Sure would, although, the seals have got you beat right now! The island was at one time a Coast Guard light station from the late 1800’s, actually up until 1948.

And for about 10 years the buildings sat abandoned.

And then in 1958 the State of California purchased them from the federal government and became Año Nuevo State Reserve.

Russ Christoff: Kevin, what do you consider ‘the miracle’ of Año Nuevo State Reserve?

Ranger Kevin: I think that people had the foresight, back in 1958, to set aside this very, very unique ecosystem.

There are things here that you cannot see any where else.

In one day you can see 5 species of marine mammals. And It’s just rich! Año Nuevo is full of sights, sounds, bird life, there’s geology and it’s all in one place.

You know, when you come to Año Nuevo the elephant seals are a draw and once you’re here you realize just how much there really is here in this park to see.

And it will hook you and keep you coming back again and again.