Viewing Elephant Seals
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 the south side of the Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. In 1981, the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. Since then, researchers have found that the colony is growing at a dramatic annual average rate of sixteen percent. Fanning out from their initial secluded south-facing beaches of the headlands, the seals have since expanded to beaches which are not not as remote, including, in 2019, Drakes Beach adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.
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. 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). Subadult and juvenile animals arrive a bit later and the southwest Drakes Beach colony can number close to nine hundred animals by early February.
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, and adult females return 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 and the adult males haul out for their molting season. From mid- to late summer, there tend to be very few elephant seals at Point Reyes, 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 to molt.
Check out our Weekly Elephant Seal updates to learn the latest news.
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. With the partial government shutdown ended, Point Reyes National Seashore has reopened the Drakes Beach Road and parking lot from 9 am until 5 pm on weekends and federal holidays. The Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center is open from 10 am until 4:30 pm on weekends and federal holidays. Park Rangers and Winter Wildlife Docents will be on site to provide direction, education, and safe elephant seal viewing opportunities for the public. There is no need to RSVP, purchase tickets, or make reservations to visit Drakes Beach or the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center; just come on by between 9 am and 5 pm on weekends and federal holidays. Access may change based upon elephant seal activity. Until further notice, the Drakes Beach area will remain closed on Mondays through Fridays, as well as before 9 am and after 5 pm on weekends and holidays. Citations will be issued to individuals and vehicles found south of the road closure during these times.
Winter Shuttle Bus System
IMPORTANT NOTE: The shuttle bus system has been cancelled for winter 2018–2019.
Seal viewing tips
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:
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.
From December 15 to March 31, the following areas are closed to all entry in order to better protect nursing elephant seal pups:
From December 1 to March 15:
NOTICE: Drakes Beach Temporary Beach Closure - January 13, 2019, until further notice
Interactive Map Illustrating the Locations of the Closures Referenced Above
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.
Last updated: February 21, 2019