Discovery Destination: Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery

elephant seal rookery

As grandmother to three rambunctious grandsons and another equally active stepgrandson, I’ve seen my share of children engaging in play battles with one another. From wrestling on the trampoline to Wii wars to Nerf gun wars, I’m no stranger to the competitive, creative capers of kids.

Which is why I never imagined one of the highlights of the mother/daughter trip my oldest and I were treated to along the California Highway 1 Discovery Route (compliments Highway 1 Discovery Route) would be watching little ones battle it out with one another. Yet when the little ones were not so little at all — hundreds and hundreds of pounds, in fact — and elephant seal babes instead of human babes, my daughter and I were enchanted by the action (and inaction) taking place at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery just north of San Simeon along California’s Central Coast.

elephant seal rookery

My daughter and I were instantly intrigued the moment we got out of our car and leaned over the railing separating the massive marine animals from the curious animal lovers enjoying their antics. The hundreds of Northern Elephant Seals lined the beach as far as we could see in both directions. And the strange creatures were so darn lazy, just lolling about, making odd noises and flipping sand on themselves.

elephant seal rookery

For two longtime Colorado residents (my daughter a native), the scene mere feet below us was unlike anything we’d ever experienced.

elephant seal rookery

I first thought the seals were continually loving up on one another when they’d rise up and awkwardly bonk heads and noses. Then the knowledgeable, approachable docent on duty the day of our visit (whose name I failed to write down as I was too busy snapping photos and videos) told us that at this time of year, May, the pups — yes, those big ol’ things are just pups! — are actually practicing battling one another like the adult males of the colony do.

“Gladiator camp,” he called it. Battles just like my grandsons and most human kiddos engage in. Only more interesting to the adult humans witnessing the faux fighting, I must admit.

elephant seal rookery

elephant seal rookery

Though the seals could appear at times quite ferocious…

elephant seal rookery

I still found much of their engagement with one another beautiful and poetic.

elephant seal rookery

Of course, not all the elephant seals played war. Many just ambled about and looked precious — even those who were molting, the docent explained, shedding their skin in chunks of gunk.

elephant seals

Several of the seals displayed wounds that, the docent pointed out and explained, were bite marks from Cookie Cutter Sharks — which amazed and frightened me. I had just learned of the existence of Cookie Cutter Sharks the week before while reading about sharks with my grandsons.

cookie cutter shark bites in seal

When I asked the docent if the injured seals meant the savage sharks are this close to shore, he explained that those sharks live far off shore and the seals with cookie-shaped chunks torn from their skin are ones who wandered farther into the ocean than they should and encountered the chomping sharks.

elephant seal rookery info

It took a lot of nudging one another for my daughter and me to finally depart the rookery. If not for the activities still on our itinerary for the day, we could have stayed for hours watching the elephant seals doing, well, basically nothing… yet everything that elephant seals do this time of year. Like this (it was quite windy that day so forgive the funky sound):

Piedro Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
Point Piedras Blancas
Highway 1, 7.7 miles north of San Simeon, California
Admission is FREE

elephant seal rookery


sebastian brother's general store

When visiting the Piedro Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, you must stop by the historic Sebastian Brother’s General Store for a fabulous meal featuring beef from the nearby Hearst Ranch. Best burgers ever — and fries, too — my daughter and I agreed. The store houses the Hearst Ranch Winery and is located just a few miles south of the rookery at 442 SLO San Simeon Road, San Simeon, CA 93452.

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