Año Nuevo celebrity seal Mr. Elliot crawls along the dunes during Seal Adventure Saturday at the State Park, in 2012. Elliot, a three-ton male, wears scars along his neck from when, as a yearling, he had a plastic toilet seat stuck around his head. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Now is the time to visit the world famous NorCal breeding grounds.

In the animal kingdom, the seal family won’t be winning any prizes in the glamour category. You’ll understand this if you’ve ever watched one galumphing across the sand, head bobbing vigorously as it hefts along its bulky body. It also doesn’t help that they make sounds similar to a sick dog. And among its flippered brethren, nothing beats the pound for pound fugliness of the male Northern elephant seal. They’re like grey Jabba the Huts or 5,000-pound blubber slugs with big, bulbous noses called proboscises (why they share that term with the delicate hummingbird, we’ll never understand).

Each January, hundreds of visitors flock to Año Nuevo State Park to gawk at these funky creatures en masse for a fundraiser called Seal Adventures. The event (which supports educational and interpretive programs at the park and others along the San Mateo coastline) gives visitors unlimited access to four miles of trails and viewing areas along the dunes.

Regular docent-guided tours are offered daily (December through March), but the fundraiser is ideal for those who prefer to take their own time rather than move at the pace of a group — or who wish to skip the commentary to commune with nature one on one. It’s a huge draw for nature photographers who heft in spindly tripods and cameras with lengthy zoom lenses. Docents direct foot traffic to keep everyone safe, donning bright red shirts that stand in sharp contrast to the beige sand.

(Clockwise from top:) Photographers and nature enthusiasts alike line the dunes at Año Nuevo during Seal Adventure Saturday, a rare opportunity put on by the park, giving visitors rare viewing access to the seals; two male elephant seals battle for mating rights; a view of the State park from the air; looking west out towards the old lighthouse station amid breeding season for elephant seals. The station operated from 1850 to 1948. (Photos by Charles Russo)

The event happens in the middle of the big “haul-out,” a season when the seals come ashore (males for three months, females for one). “Nobody eats a thing that entire time,” says Christen Bechert, the Docent Coordinator and Interpretive Specialist at the park. She explains these pinnipeds support that low metabolism by sleeping 20 hours a day. “The most common question, I swear, is ‘Are they dead?’” Bechert chuckles. “But no, it’s just because their heart rate has dropped down so low to conserve that energy. They only have to breathe every 15 minutes. Sometimes you’ll see them taking a nap with their head fully underwater. Totally fine for them.”

A portion of the raised funds covers the park’s ten-week docent training program, which is much-needed for safe maneuvering. You never know when a giant seal might come flopping in your direction — and nobody wants their day trip turning into some 1980s sci-fi/horror called Attack of the Mutant Jell-O Molds.

Dozens of seals slumber on the beach at Año Nuevo. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Bechert and her team have learned the intricate dance of steering you around slumbering seals on the dunes and keeping you out of blubber behemoth brawls. “It can get kind of dynamic out there,” she says. “I have to be very good at detecting what the seal’s next move is going to be.” Docents are trained to know which trails the mammals use and how to spot an active seal. (“If the seal’s on his stomach [rather than his side] and he’s looking around a lot or keeps raising his head then, to me, that seal wants to go somewhere else.”)

Perhaps most importantly, docents know how to locate the dominant males (known as “beachmasters”) and understand the reactions they might trigger. Beachmasters often chase the younger fellows away from their harem of ladies. “And that seal in front is terrified. He doesn’t want to get beat up,” Bechert notes. “So everything in front of him will become a speed bump. Including us. They just go, they don’t care.”

Docents learn to ask, “If he moved, where would these other seals run to?” It’s a little like a chess game and figuring out where your friend will move his pieces next—if those chess pieces made guttural grunting noises and weighed a hulking 5,000 pounds.

Two male elephant seals battle for mating rights at Año Nuevo State Park. (Photo by Charles Russo)

One tip for spotting alpha males? The lady seals swoon over a man with a large proboscis. “The bigger the nose, the bigger the seal — and the bigger the seal, the better protection,” Bechert says. “That’s what the ladies are looking for in a man: someone to be their bodyguard while they’re nursing their baby.”

For those who gravitate to quirky animal facts, the docent-guided tours are ideal. You’ll learn about how these creatures can dive a mile deep (hunting where bioluminescent squid or lantern fish hang out) — and how the pups teach each other to swim (these moms don’t endorse helicopter parenting). You’ll also learn how seals were declared extinct three different times in the late 1800s due to overhunting. Thankfully they were wrong.

An aggressive male elephant sale moves along the beach at Año Nuevo. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Docents aren’t given a script to recite. Instead, they listen to rangers and UCSF researchers on the latest scientific research in the field as well as learn about how to lead tours effectively, how to interact with outdoor environments and how to work with kids. At that point, it’s up to them to shape their tour, ensuring a slightly different experience each time guests visit. “We like to give them the freedom and let their personality shine. I don’t want anyone out there just repeating something off of a piece of paper,” Bechert says. “When you speak from a place of passion, you’re talking about what you care about — and it’s so much easier to make other people care.”

No roadside lookout can compare to the immersive experience at Año Nuevo State Park. With the engaging experts, the endless natural landscape of the rolling dunes and, of course, the mega-fauna, it’s easy to imagine you’re on a safari — only the rhinos are legless and much, much flabbier.

To make some flippered friends, attend Seal Adventures on Saturday and Sunday, January 25th-26th.

For regular docent-guided tours, visit Año Nuevo State Park any day December through March. More information can be found on the park’s website.

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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