A visit with the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals

We just returned from a brief trip up the beautiful California Central Coast for our yearly family reunion. I would have told you about it in advance, but it’s generally not a good idea to publicly announce that somewhere around fifty of my family members have all vacated their homes for a long weekend.


I’ve shared this beautiful rock before. We gather in the city of Morro Bay, a beautiful seaside village with the central feature being this marvelous 576 foot high volcanic plug.

I had only one other “must see” for the weekend.  It was important to me to go just a few miles north of Morro Bay and to stop along Highway 1 at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery.  More than 17,000 elephant seals call the rookery home. When we caught up with them last September during their mating season, they were gathering by the thousands.


We had hoped to make another trip in late January to see the pups, but it just didn’t happen. Maybe next year. The elephant seals migrate thousands of miles to this secluded sandy beach twice a year for breeding, birthing and molting.

We found the population quite a bit smaller this visit, but we could witness some of the molt.


Elephant Seals shed their skin as they grow, much like a snake, molting after the breeding season. During this time they cannot enter the ocean as  they are missing necessary insulation.

Judging by the small beached population, we were definitely late to witness the molting season.


Do you see the kelp beds out beyond the rocks? According to one of the volunteers,  the kelp beds help protect these majestic mammals from their enemy, the Great White shark. The elephant seal can dive to 5,000 feet and stay as long as an hour, providing a good defense, but the kelp helps provide a natural barrier.


Sophia and Karina were genuinely interested in these noisy and oddly moving creatures, and I hope we can make a return trip later this fall to visit with them when once again they number in the thousands.

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Care to take a look at them through an EsealCam? The non-profit organization, Friends of the Elephant Seal, provides the live camera and depending on the time of year, you could get quite a show.

Click HERE if you’re interested in seeing what they’re up to–just remember to coordinate your visit with California’s Pacific Standard Time! I just checked on them and presumably they were sleeping. I’ll see them again in the morning.

Nature has provided us with some amusing–really quite funny looking creatures, don’t you agree?


42 thoughts on “A visit with the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seals

  1. What an interesting experience to share with Sophia and Karina – and me. 🙂 They are interesting creatures with a beauty in their own right. Molting of anything always seems so painful to me, but, then again it must feel rather good to shed old skin and have knew. If only I could do it with a few (or more) pounds.

    I think it is so wonderful that your family continues this traditions, Debra. I miss my own days of old when we had reunions – and all the gatherings at my childhood home. Summer was a reunion there, every weekend. Wasn’t there a fire quite near to the area you stay in last year?

    1. You know, Penny, I didn’t know anything about the elephant seals and molting! I guess I’ve just never seen them during this time. It does look like they’d get a sun burn on the areas with new skin! I really try to find the ways to introduce interesting animal habitats to the girls. I feel a sense of responsibility to do this while they’re young and curious and open! It just thrills me when they show genuine interest. The reunion time is very special, Penny. This year I took particular notice of how many little ones we have under 10 years old and to watch the family grow is precious and joyous to me.

      I think I recall the fire you’re remembering, Penny, but there are so many of them that I’m not sure! Fire season is going to be real tricky business this year. I took some photos, which I’ll probably share, of just how dry the open land is. I’ve never seen it like this! I’d be very concerned if I lived in the foothills! 😦

    1. Did you get as far north as Monterey, Philip? I haven’t seen many sea otters in Morro Bay, but maybe 100 miles north they are plentiful. We don’t have elephant seals or sea otters in our Southern California oceans so I am always intrigued to see the sea life change as we move further north! 🙂

    1. I’m fairly sure you would have seen this sanctuary when you went to Hearst Castle, Frank. It’s adjacent the Hearst property and well-marked. But if you were mid-summer the numbers were probably not too impressive. I’m always glad to hear that you know that particular stretch of California. It only takes us a little more than 3 hours to get up there, and yet we so rarely get up that way!

  2. Your top photo just made me have a serious urge to get back out to CA. I miss it! Such fun pictures. I had no idea seals molt. So interesting! I hope you had a wonderful time at the reunion. I can’t believe how big the girls are getting! Too cute!

    1. You raise a good question, Kristy. I know (I didn’t until recently) that elephant seals molt, but I don’t know for sure about all seals. Something to look up! We have had family reunions for years and we used to gather further north, but it became too hard for the SoCal group to do on a weekend. Morro Bay is half-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles–the perfect destination. I hope you do return to California, Kristy. There are so many beautiful spots and I’d be very curious to see what your “top destinations” would be. 🙂

    1. I didn’t know about the molting either, to be honest! I had never visited in this particular season. I found myself thinking it would be a wonderful place to volunteer and really get to know the habits and cycles of these great mammals. I love that part of the coast…maybe someday! 🙂

    1. Aren’t the elephant seals amazing mammals? They are so fun to watch even when they’re not doing much! I’m hoping we get up to the rookery again this fall when the numbers are so high and I’m definitely going to take video. I’d really like to capture the power of that many in one spot, and the incredible sound they make. 🙂

  3. We came across a massive elephant seal colony during my PCH drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles for my 40th birthday many years ago. Love your pictures, Debra!

    p.s. I’m in Vegas now, and headed to Irvine for a meeting next week Wednesday, but I think I’m headed straight back that night – or – I may take a day off and bag another in the 6-pack of peaks. I’m thinking Baldy. Need to convince hubby that it won’t be too hot to hike it in July. 🙂

    1. If you do Baldy, I want to hear all about that. The heat and humidity has been really oppressive this week, but I don’t think it’s going to last. The humidity isn’t typical! I love that you took PCH from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Isn’t that an amazing drive?

  4. Great shots of them Debra! A lovely experience for your grandchildren too. They are quite strange-looking animals, but they probably think that of us too! 😉

    1. Ha! What a great comment, Cathy! Ha! We should wonder what those elephant seals are thinking about as crowds gather and just stare at them for long lengths of time. They probably do think we’re pretty funny looking. If I go up there again in the fall I’m going to take video! The sounds they make are pretty funny, too. 🙂

    1. I’ve been learning more about this particular rookery, Lori, and the numbers have really increased over the last several years. But this is a protected area and they are well provided for here. 🙂 I hope we can get up there agin in the fall and see that remarkable site of thousands of elephant seals in one spot. It was just remarkable!

    1. Oh my goodness! In charge of your family reunion! I hope you’ll tell us what you decide to do. If I remember correctly, you have a large family! There is something very special about looking at each person, especially the younger ones, and being aware of the legacy of family. I really hope we’ll be able to keep up the yearly event. It takes a lot of work to make it happen, but it’s so worth it. Good luck in your planning. I love to participate and “help” where I can, but I’m not sure I would have it in me to be the host. 🙂

      1. I’m getting old for it too. We rotate. Some of the younger group take a rotation and some do not although they are willing to do most of the cooking. We don’t pressure because in order to work you have to want to do it. Our group is only 30 at this point and only three are under 25. I’ll need a whole week to rest afterward!

  5. Hope you soaked up lots of sun and fun during your reunion, Debra. I’m with you about not announcing where we’re going until “after the fact.”

    1. We did have a wonderful time in Morro Bay, Nancy. It’s a small town (relatively speaking) and to be there with cousins and family I only see once a year was just delightful! 🙂

  6. What a wonderful experience for the kids!!! As for the fewer animals, there is evidence out that the radiation from Japan has made it off our coast via the currents, of course. I understand it is cesium and it is killing off or making I’ll many animals. Have you noticed there isn’t as many kelp washing up along our beaches?

    1. I don’t have as much familiarity with the kelp beds along the Central Coast, Koji, especially when we are there at different times of year and I don’t know the seasonal differences. After the tsunami in Japan I followed the radiation reports for awhile, but I haven’t continued to keep track of that–I think I found it so alarming I didn’t want to know more! The sea lion colony is basically smaller this time of year because they are “out to sea” eating and getting ready for the fall when they will return by the thousands for mating season. I know we need healthy oceans to keep these mammals going strong and I do have a concern about that. I do love that part of the state. 🙂

  7. How fascinating Debra. And how wonderful to have an annual family reunion where 50 family members gather. I wish we did the same! I do love the seals and didn’t know they molt. Such beautiful animals and it would be such a treat to see them in the wild xx

    1. I think every time you get together with your sisters you must have an amazing family reunion, Charlie. Your family is spread out much further distances, I think. The “50” includes a lot of children! I think as the generations multiply there is more of a reason to gather at least once a year so that the little ones have a sense of their larger family. We do have a wonderful time together and it’s amazing to me how quickly another year rolls around. 🙂

  8. It’s always interesting when it comes to animals that shed their skin. I didn’t know elephant seals are part of it! That must be so fascinating to see. Didn’t know about this mating season either. Great tips!

    1. I didn’t know that elephant seals shed their skin either, Rommel. This is the first time I’ve witnessed it. Next time I’ve just got to come prepared to take video. They are just so funny when they move and they make odd sounds as well. If you have the opportunity to visit I know you’d enjoy it. 🙂

  9. Darn! It took ages to load on my antique laptop (I went off and made coffee while it loaded) and then it was dark! 😦 Never mind- I loved your photo of the girls looking so intent. What a wonderful experience to share. I can’t even stay underwater 1 minute, let alone an hour 🙂 Thanks for a lovely share.

  10. Oh, I’m so sorry, Jo! Those crazy time zones will get us every time! I’m planning to visit again this fall when they’re on the beach in thousands, and I’m going to take video next time. 🙂

  11. This is our favorite stop on our way up north. So lovely to see them relaxing on the shores and how the children enjoy the break–how can you not love Morro Bay, right? Your family reunion sounds wonderful…how lovely to see everyone and be so close.

    1. I”m so glad you know this area, too, Cristina. I think the Central Coast is absolutely special, and I just wish that we prioritized it more often. It occurred to me one day that in the time it takes to go to dinner and see a movie we could be up there! LOL! And those sea lions are so fascinating. I’m determined to get up there next year in the time when the pups are being born. 🙂

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