Viewing Elephant Seals

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Click on the following links to find out more about viewing opportunities for these species and to learn about their habitats and behaviors:

Birds ¦ Coho Salmon ¦ Elephant Seals ¦ Tule Elk ¦ Whales

 
A bull elephant seal on a sandy beach rears back its head as it trumpets a challenge as waves break in the background.
A bull elephant seal trumpets a challenge at Drakes Beach on February 10, 2019.

A Brief History of Elephant Seals at Point Reyes

After being absent for more than 150 years, northern elephant seals returned to sandy pocket beaches on the south side of the Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. In 1981, the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. Between 1988 and 1993, the population grew at a dramatic annual average rate of 32%. Since 1993, the average growth rate has slowed to 8–9% per year. Fanning out from their initial secluded south-facing beaches of the headlands, the seals have since expanded to beaches which are not as remote, including, in 2019, Drakes Beach adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.

 
A circular graphic illustrating when elephant seals are present at Point Reyes.
Males, females, juveniles, and/or pups are present at Point Reyes at various times throughout the year.

When are Elephant Seals Present at Point Reyes?

While some elephant seals may be present at Point Reyes on any given day of the year, the greatest number of seals haul out on beaches around the headlands from December through March for the birthing and mating season, and in the spring when adult females and juveniles haul out to molt. Visitors may observe a colony of elephant seals from the Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock, above beautiful Drakes Bay, or from the South Beach Overlook a short distance north of the Point Reyes Lighthouse visitors' parking lot. And, as of 2019, visitors are also able to view a colony on the beach adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.

The males are the first to arrive here, in December, in an effort to stake out a claim on the beach they hope to dominate. Then pregnant females begin to arrive and, soon thereafter, give birth to a single pup (or, in an extremely rare case, twins). The southwest Drakes Beach colony, which can be viewed from the Elephant Seal Overlook, can number over 600 animals by early February.

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Five visitors in the foreground look down from a bluff-top overlook at elephant seals that are on narrow beaches at the base of sloping bluffs in the distance.
Bring binoculars to better see the elephant seals located on the beach at the base of the bluffs opposite of the Elephant Seal Overlook.

From the Elephant Seal Overlook, you can witness the fascinating behavior of these animals, including male dominance contests, birthing of pups, and the interactions of mothers and pups. You will hear the distinctive vocalizations of females and pups, as well as the powerful trumpeting of the adult males (referred to as "bulls"), which can be heard for over a mile.

After a month of nursing, female elephant seals will wean their pups and head back out to sea for a month or two of feeding to replenish deleted energy reserves, leaving the weaned pups ("weaners") to survive on their own. Once adult females have left the colonies, adult males will also depart. By mid-April, most of the pups have left the area to find food. In early April, juvenile seals and adult females come to shore for two to three weeks in order to molt (shed their skin). Toward the end of the spring, the female molt has concluded and they head back to sea for a longer feeding period. The juvenile molt extends into early summer when the adult males start to haul out for their molting season. There tend to be very few elephant seals at Point Reyes in the late summer, but on most days a few elephant seals may still be seen from the Elephant Seal Overlook. By mid-September, juveniles will return to shore for a resting haul out. During this time, the juvenile seals are still growing and being onshore allows their bones and muscles to develop properly. It also gets them in sync with the coming on shore twice a year pattern and allows the seals to do this before the breeding season, in which they are too young to participate.

Check out our Weekly Elephant Seal updates to learn the latest news.

 
In the foreground, seven individuals descend a path that leads from a bluff-top overlook to a beach-side parking lot. On the left, in the parking lot, are dozens of visitors looking at elephant seals that are laying on the beach on the right.
The view of Drakes Beach from the Peter Behr Overlook Trail on February 18, 2019. Orange traffic cones and barricades separate visitors from the elephant seals.

Elephant Seals at Drakes Beach

In January 2019, elephant seals occupied the section of Drakes Beach adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, and, at times, the parking lot and wooden ramps leading up to the visitor center. As a result, the entire Drakes Beach area south of the junction of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Drakes Beach Road was closed to the public to better protect the elephant seals from disturbance. Once the partial government shutdown ended, Point Reyes National Seashore reopened Drakes Beach Road and the parking lot from 9 am until 5 pm on weekends and federal holidays. The Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center was open from 10 am until 4:30 pm on weekends and federal holidays. Park Rangers and Winter Wildlife Docents were on site to provide direction, education, and safe elephant seal viewing opportunities for the public. There was no need to RSVP, purchase tickets, or make reservations to visit Drakes Beach or the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center; visitors were welcome to just come on by between 9 am and 5 pm on weekends and federal holidays. The park reserved the option to change access in the area based upon elephant seal activity. The Drakes Beach area remained closed on Mondays through Fridays, as well as before 9 am and after 5 pm on weekends and holidays, until Monday, April 15, 2019. Citations were issued to individuals and vehicles found south of the road closure during these times. If elephant seals return to the beach adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center to birth their pups in December 2019 or January 2020, similar closures may occur.

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Five visitors boarding a coach-sized bus that is decorated with a rainbow-colored horizontal stripe.

Winter Shuttle Bus System

Due to the high volume of traffic out to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas during the elephant seal pupping and mating season and the gray whale migration, the park will be operating a shuttle bus system from the Drakes Beach parking lot (usually from New Year's to Easter each year on weekends and holidays—weather permitting). Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from South Beach to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas WILL BE CLOSED during shuttle operating hours. Check the "Shuttles, Whales, and Elephant Seals" recording at 415-464-5100 x2 x3 x1 for updates on whether shuttles are operating.

 

Seal viewing tips

  • For your own safety, always observe elephant seals from a distance. Use binoculars, telephoto lenses, and spotting scopes for a better view of the animals. If a seal becomes alert or nervous and begins to move away, you are too close.
  • Stay at least 25 feet (~8 meters) from elephant seals.
  • Do not come between a cow and pup, a bull and a group of cows, or two bulls challenging each other.
  • Watch quietly; whisper. Move slowly.
  • Limit overall viewing time to no more than 30 minutes.
  • Avoid abrupt movements or loud noises around marine mammals
  • Move away cautiously if behaviors are observed that indicate the animal is stressed.
  • Avoid touching or swimming with wild marine mammals, even if they approach you.
  • Bring your pets only where they are allowed.
  • Observe beach closures and restrictions.

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Feeding or Harassing Marine Mammals in the Wild is Illegal and Harmful to the Animals

Why is it illegal to feed, attempt to feed, or harass marine mammals in the wild?

Feeding, attempting to feed, and harassment of marine mammals in the wild by anyone is prohibited by regulations enacted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Feeding, attempting to feed, or otherwise harassing marine mammals in the wild was made illegal because it is harmful to the animals in the following ways:

  • It causes marine mammals to lose their natural wariness of humans or boats and become conditioned to receiving handouts and associate people with food.
  • It changes their natural behaviors, including feeding and migration activities, and decreases their willingness to forage for food on their own. They may also begin to take bait/catch from fishing gear. These changed behaviors may be passed on to their young and other members of their social groups and increases their risk of injury from boats, entanglement in fishing gear, and intentional harm by people frustrated with the behavioral changes.
  • Some of the items that are fed to marine mammals may be contaminated (old or spoiled) or not food at all. Feeding marine mammals inappropriate food, non-food items, or contaminated food jeopardizes their health.
  • Marine mammals sometimes become aggressive when seeking food, and are known to bite or injure people when teased or expecting food.

How is "harassment" defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act?

Harassment means any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance that has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (Level A harassment); or that has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering, but does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (Level B harassment).

More information on this topic may be found on the National Marine Fisheries Service's Frequent Questions – Feeding or Harassing Marine Mammals in the Wild page.

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Seasonal Closures:

From December 15 to March 31, the following areas are closed to all entry in order to better protect nursing elephant seal pups:

  • the southern end of South Point Reyes Beach (as signed) to the Lighthouse;
  • the beach from the Chimney Rock Lifeboat Station to Chimney Rock; and
  • the road leading from the gate at the end of the Chimney Rock Road to the Fish Dock area, including immediately adjacent beaches. (Map - 301 KB PDF)

From December 1 to March 15:

  • Drakes Beach starting approximately 1/2 mile southwest of the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center and continuing south to the current permanent elephant seal closure.

Drakes Beach Temporary Beach Closure - January 13, 2019, through late April 2019
A temporary closure of the Drakes Beach area south of the junction of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Drakes Beach Road was implemented in January 2019 after female elephant seals hauled out in the cove in front of the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center and gave birth to pups. To better protect elephant seals from disturbance, all public use of the area is prohibited, except for from 9 am to 5 pm on weekends and federal holidays when park staff are present. If seals return in January 2020 to this section of Drakes Beach, a similar closure may be implemented.

Interactive Map Illustrating the Locations of the Closures Referenced Above

 
 

Learn More

During weekends and holidays, highly trained docents staff the Elephant Seal Overlook and Drakes Beach. They have binoculars, spotting scopes, and a wealth of information to share with you.

Check out our Elephant Seals page, the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center's Elephant Seals web page, or our Elephant Seals Resource Newsletter (1,338 KB PDF).


Adobe® Acrobat Reader® may be needed to view PDF documents.

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Last updated: November 4, 2019

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

1 Bear Valley Road
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956

Phone:

(415) 464-5100
This number will initially be answered by an automated attendant, from which one can opt to access a name directory, listen to recorded information about the park (i.e., directions to the park; visitor center hours of operation; weather forecast; fire danger information; shuttle bus system status; wildlife updates; ranger-led programs; seasonal events; etc.), or speak with a ranger. Please note that if you are calling between 4:30 pm and 10 am, park staff may not be available to answer your call.

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