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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Elephant Seal Protection Areas:
Drakes Beach Elephant Seal Colony Year-Round Closure
The Drakes Beach elephant seal colony as delineated by signs at the western-most end of Drakes Beach is closed to all entry due to seal activity at all times of the year. This closure is necessary to protect an established elephant seal colony from disturbance and protect the public. The elephant seal colony is used all year. No management action other than a year-round closure is sufficient.
From December 15 to March 31, the following areas are closed to all entry in order to better protect nursing elephant seal pups:
Drakes Beach Temporary Beach Closure - January 13, 2019, through late April 2019
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: December 12, 2019