It had been a few months since we had last visited Ano Nuevo State Park so Nancy suggested we take a trip there. On a hot day inland, a run to the coast is certainly a good idea. Besides, the elephant seals were in their molting season so were lying up on the beaches as they shed their winter skins. Things were a lot quieter than is the case in the mating season. A few immature males were practicing their fighting techniques in the shallows but nothing too serious.
The molting process takes a while. As the seals lie on the beach, you can see them going through the process with significant chunks of the old skin gone but a lot still left. Over time they shed the whole thing and then can head back out to sea to resume their normal plan of eating, eating and more eating.
Before we went to the beach at Point Reyes, we did briefly stop off at Drake’s Bay. This wasn’t a big part of our plan but we needed to drop in to the visitor’s center briefly. While we were there, one of the team was talking about the elephant seals and mentioned that a few were on the beach just outside. We took a look before we went on our way. There were indeed a few seals right up near the center. These were not as large as the seals down at Ano Nuevo but they were still pretty large.
Some volunteers had put some small flags out to guide people away from the seals. Even so, we were still quite close to them. Moreover, they would move when they felt like it so the flags were soon irrelevant. The volunteers just had to remind people not to get too close or in the way if a seal was on the move. Despite this, some needed a slightly stronger hint to keep out of the way. How hard is this to understand I wonder?
With the amount of seal shots I have recently got, you would think I would have been happy to let this time go but I just can’t resist a wildlife shot. I got a few of them as they slept or eyed us cautiously and then we went off to the other beaches for the remainder of our day.
While most of the attention at Ano Nuevo is on the males as they fight for dominance of each other and the females, there are moments when you get the pups alone or with their mothers. Some of these moments fit the cuteness requirements. After the hulks of the males, here are some more gooey pictures.
Aside from taking pictures of the seals at Ano Nuevo, I also got some video. Having the tripod with me made shooting video at long range practical. Getting the camera on them when they are doing something interesting is not always easy. The do something and then stop as soon as you get the camera on them. I think they know what you are doing. Even so, they still did enough to make some of it worth saving in the edit!
A year ago, Nancy bought me a ticket for a sunrise photo tour of the beaches at Ano Nuevo State Park when the elephant seals were taking over the place. I posted shots of that here if you want to reference back. I was keen to try the whole thing again this year but there was no sign of it on the website. One morning, I happened to look again and not only was it available but all sessions were sold out except one. I clicked on that one and found that only one ticket was left so bought it straight away. As with last year, I found myself up horribly early in the morning outside the gate of the park waiting for the ranger to show up. Unlike last year when the weather was cold, wet and windy, this year the skies were clear and there was no wind. I had actually overdressed after my previous experience.
We got to a series of locations where we were really in amongst the seals. It was predominantly males although there were some females and a few pups scattered in amongst them. Because the weather had been warm, the seals had stayed close to the water. In cooler weather they can often be found well up in the dunes.
The males were not as aggressive as last year. There were a few confrontations while we were there, some of which drew a little blood. However, the ranger said that they had already sized each other up so the hierarchy was quite established. We did see a few scuffles and there were occasions where the males headed for the females causing some evasion tactics and sometimes when they didn’t move fast enough!
The contrast to the previous year was obvious from a photography perspective. This time I had taken a tripod having found the last time that you weren’t constantly on the move and that the early light needed it. We did have far nicer light as well with the sun showing up and providing some great warmth in the shots taken early on. This is a fun thing to do and you are finished by about 9:30. You can then enjoy the rest of the park if you wish. However, part of you will be trying to get the smell out of your nose. Hanging around in amongst elephant seals does introduce you to a fragrance you won’t forget in a hurry.
While all of the activity on the beach was going on with the males and females, there were also a ton of pups lying around. Once the pups have suckled long enough, they are fat and happy and left to their own devices. They don’t have enough strength so, for the next few weeks, they will move about the beach burning down the fat and strengthening themselves up before heading out to sea.
Meanwhile, they look very cute. They are called weaners when they are left to their own devices. Every image you have of a baby seal is met by the weaners. Small, plump with huge eyes. Just what you imagine. In amongst them were some so-called “super-weaners”. These “little” fellas had got a double dose of mother’s milk and they were huge. Normally in young creatures you imagine that getting extra is good for you. For seals, this is not so much the case. Having all of the extra fat means they are very buoyant. When they head out to see, they tend to bob around on the surface and that makes them easy pickings for the sharks offshore. I guess greed isn’t good for you!
Elements of this post may come with an R Rating. If you are a sensitive soul, look away now. Courtesy of Nancy, I spent a morning in the midst of a crazy place. Ano Nuevo State Refuge is on the Pacific coast about halfway between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. The beaches of the park are a popular location for breeding elephant seals. The park protects the seals from the visitors while allowing people to get a good view of them. However, they also run a series of sunrise photo tours. In a small group, you are escorted by a ranger to various locations where you are close in to the action with the seals. And there is some action!
This was something Nancy bought me as a birthday treat. She didn’t come along. Something about a 5am start on a rainy day didn’t appeal to her – not sure why. Calling it a sunrise tour was a little optimistic. The horizontal rain meant it was more a case of dark transitioning to quite dark. However, that didn’t get in the way of experiencing some great stuff.
I was a little unsure of what sort of equipment to take with me. I knew some walking would be involved and ultimately elected to leave the 500mm behind and go with the 70-200 and the 100-400. If I do this again (and there is a good chance I will), I would include the 500mm and a tripod. The early start meant the lighting was pretty difficult. We did walk but spent most of our time in a few locations and only walked when moving between them. Carrying some extra gear would not have been too tricky. Keeping it dry was more of an issue of course!
Auto ISO was a friend in this situation. I went to manual mode, set up the speed and aperture I wanted and let the camera deal with the ISO. With conditions evolving, this made things a lot easier. The newer version of my camera has a function that would have been welcome here and that is the ability to add exposure compensation to the mix. Mine won’t do that sadly. It would have been helpful in this situation. As the light got better, it was possible to go back to a more normal aperture priority shooting approach fixing the ISO and using exposure comp as required. The high ISO capabilities of modern DSLRs are so handy on a shoot like this. The 70-200 is an f2.8 lens so it allowed relatively low ISOs from early on but the 100-400 is an f5.6 at length and so the ISO was really pushing up there. However, while the noise is noticeable, the images really are very useable.
The beach was covered in seals. Various dominant males had their harems scattered around. They were either mating with the females or fighting males that wanted to get in on the act. Some of the males would come in either straight through the front door looking for a fight or sneaking around the side hoping not to be noticed. The result was usually the same. Some of the fights were pretty brief when the challenger realized that they were out of their class. Occasionally they went on for a long time with the males taking chunks out of each other as they swiped their teeth into the neck of their opponent. I have heard the bellow these seals make on video before but in person it really resonates through you.
Meanwhile, a second group of males were waiting down by the water. The females had raised their pups and were now leaving them on the beach and heading back to see. They were fertile again so many males were trying to intercept them as they came to the water out of range of the harem. They had some success with this but were also fighting each other to be in the best spot. Consequently, it was almost non-stop fighting and mating on the beach with the occasional birth taking place too! Good luck to those females because, once they were off the beach, they had the great whites to look forward to a little further offshore.