When and Where to See Elephant Seals in California (and Livestream!)
- Species conservation
- Climate change
- Natural history
Seeing elephant seals in the wild is a truly remarkable experience, and coastal viewpoints in California offer breathtaking sights of this species that you won’t want to miss. As you watch these large, blubbery mammals interact in their natural habitat, the experience is made even more special knowing that you are witnessing a conservation success story.
Northern elephant seals were hunted to the brink of extinction by the end of the 19th century. After decades of being slaughtered for their blubber, which people used for lamp oil during that time, only an estimated 100 animals remained on one small island off the coast of Mexico. Mexico and the United States declared protections for this species, and northern elephant seals rebounded in a big way—there are an estimated 150,000 – 200,000 individuals today, and the population continues to grow every year.
This species is found in the North Pacific, ranging from Baja California, Mexico, to the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. Elephant seals spend the vast majority of their time—about nine months of the year—in the open ocean, only coming to shore twice each year to breed and molt.
They have one of the longest migrations of any mammal in the world, traveling up to 13,000 miles each year from shore to their feeding grounds in the northern Pacific Ocean. During their biannual migrations at sea, northern elephant seals forage for bottom-dwelling creatures and dive up to depths over 5,000 feet (that’s equal to four Empire State Buildings!).
While there are peak seasons between December and June when most elephant seals haul out, or temporarily leave the water, you can see elephant seals year-round in California on their breeding beaches, called rookeries. But with so much of their lives spent underwater up to 5,000 miles offshore, how is it that elephant seals can be spotted on the beach during any season?
Male and female elephant seals swim to and from the rookery beaches in phases, depending on where they are in their life cycle. This means that depending on when you venture out to an elephant seal overlook, you might be able to spot 4,500-pound male seals fighting for dominance, expectant mothers coming ashore to give birth, or young pups learning to swim.
Whether you visit an elephant seal viewing point or tune in to our live beach webcam, you can watch wild seals ashore and observe their fascinating natural behaviors. Follow the incredible life journey of this species in the timeline below, find out when and where to see elephant seals in California, and learn how you can help protect these animals.
Elephant Seal Viewing Timeline
& What You Might Observe
Adult male seals, called bulls, are the first to arrive on the breeding beaches starting in November. These massive elephant seals stake claim to female pupping areas on the beach and fight other males to establish dominance and mating rights, often developing calloused chests from these battles. During this spectacle that lasts through February, you may hear dominant males inflate their trunk-like noses and produce their own unique call that sounds like a drum to warn weaker males away.
Northern elephant seal bulls
You’ll start to see adult female seals arrive on the rookeries from December through February, soon after the male seals. Following an eight-month migration at sea, pregnant seals journey back to the breeding beaches with extreme punctuality, giving birth to their single pups just a few days after arriving. In fact, researchers have found that female elephant seals know precisely when to return from their long-distance migration based on their perception of space and time.
Northern elephant seal mom and pup
Newborn elephant seals weigh about 75 pounds and are about 4 feet in length. They have a black coat, which they molt, or shed, when they wean from their mothers at about 1 month old. During their first month of life, the pups nurse from their mothers and gain about 10 pounds a day.
Breeding season is a popular time to view large colonies of elephant seals and observe the fascinating interactions between mothers and pups. Immediately after birth, elephant seal mothers and pups learn to recognize each other by vocalizations and sniffing. If mother and pup are distanced from each other, they may only find each other again by recognizing these distinct calls.
The mothers do not eat during this period, and by March, they mate with the dominant male and then return to sea to feed. Their now 300-pound weaned pups are left on the beach to fend for themselves, not knowing how to swim and never having even seen a fish before.
The pups head into the water for short periods as they practice diving and finding food. After a couple of months, they learn to feed on squid, fish and occasionally small sharks, and they venture deep into the open ocean on their own.
During the warmer months, you’ll see juvenile and adult elephant seals of both sexes return to the beaches to molt, shedding not only their hair but also their top layer of skin. This is known as a catastrophic molt. Females molt in the spring, juveniles in the early summer and males in the late summer. They may look funny, or even alarming, during this period of transition, but the molting process is a key adaptation that keeps their skin and fur healthy.
Why do seals return to the beach to molt? Elephant seals’ bodies normally direct blood flow toward the core of their bodies to keep their vital organs warm in the chilly ocean. But since their blood flow directs to the skin's surface to molt and promote hair growth, they must be in a warmer environment during this time to keep their vital organs from getting too cold.
After spending several months at sea post-molt, female and male juvenile seals return to the rookeries again in the fall. While the older seals are still migrating at sea, this haul-out season is the annual opportunity for 1- to 5-year-old seals to rest and play together on the beach.
Without large territorial adult males present, juvenile seals can practice sparring and training for future dominance. You may see male juveniles pushing their chests against one another to challenge or even “play” fight—as elephant seals get older, the battles will become more aggressive. Since these young seals are still growing, the gravity from moving around on land also helps to strengthen their muscles and bones.
Most of the juvenile seals head back out to sea before the end of November, making way once again for the adult males to return to the elephant seal rookeries for the start of breeding season.
Large colonies of northern elephant seals can be found on their breeding grounds along the California coast and offshore islands, such as Año Nuevo, Piedras Blancas, Point Reyes and the Channel Islands. Visiting areas along the coast offer spectacular views of these animals during peak haul-out seasons and year-round. Explore the elephant seal viewing points below to help you plan your trip and enjoy an unforgettable experience.
- Año Nuevo State Park – Every year thousands of elephant seals return to the rookery at Año Nuevo State Park located along the San Mateo coast south of San Francisco. Observing elephant seals here begins with a beautiful three- to four-mile roundtrip hike to the viewpoints. Guided tours must be reserved from December 15 to March 31, and the walk is self-guided from April to November. The park also offers docent-led ADA wheelchair-accessible tours during the peak viewing season.
- Piedras Blancas – Tens of thousands of northern elephant seals haul out on the Piedras Blancas rookery in San Simeon, California. Elephant seal viewing areas are open every day for free with no reservation, along with wheelchair-accessible viewing platforms. Docents from Friends of the Elephant Seal are there to provide insight about the San Simeon elephant seals you observe.
- Point Reyes National Seashore – You can see a large colony of elephant seals return to Point Reyes each year from the Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock and from the Drakes Beach viewing area adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center. Just a short walk from the Chimney Rock parking lot, you’ll be able to look down and observe the picturesque rookery where elephant seals rest and interact with one another. Parts of the beach at Point Reyes may be closed during certain times to better protect the seals, so be sure to check current conditions before you leave.
Did you know you can try to spot elephant seals in real-time from anywhere in the world? View The Marine Mammal Center’s 24-hour livestream of the Point Reyes elephant seal rookery at MarineMammalCenter.org/livestream.
On this livestream, you might see elephant seals of all ages hauled out on the beach and other wildlife throughout the year. Seals have been observed giving birth, caring for their young pups, interacting in the water and resting in the sand among other behaviors.
Technical difficulties? The location of this webcam is remote and the weather can be rough and unpredictable, which could interfere with the livestream. Enjoy some highlights on our YouTube channel.
Despite the population rebounding from near-extinction more than a century ago, elephant seals are now facing increased risks to their survival as climate change, ocean trash and other human-caused threats impact their habitat.
As the ocean temperature warms due to climate change, water is expanding onto the beaches where elephant seals rest, breed and nurse their pups. Many elephant seal rookeries are backed by coastal cliffs that unfortunately allow little space to move away from encroaching swells. Rising sea levels coupled with more frequent and extreme storms—another devastating effect of climate change—can result in young pups being swept into the surf before they’ve weaned from their mother.
Whether it’s a strong storm that separates mother and pup or people or dogs getting too close and scaring the seal mother away, it’s a heartbreaking situation. Young pups that are lost or abandoned too soon quickly become malnourished with little chance of surviving on their own.
Thanks to kind people like you, marine mammals are rescued and brought to our hospital for the best possible care.
And just as much as this work is about giving each individual animal the care and attention it needs to return to the wild with a second chance, it is also about the population as a whole, the health of our ocean and even human health. This conservation work is only possible thanks to ocean heroes like you.
The greatest threats to marine mammals are caused by people, but we can also be their greatest champions.
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In addition to being a seasonal haul-out beach for wild elephant seals, Point Reyes is also a release location for seals and sea lions that have been rehabilitated at our hospital. Live as it’s happening on our webcam, you can witness the moment our patients return to their ocean home with a second chance at life.
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Northern Elephant Seal