Majestic gray whales and lumbering elephant seals are back along the Point Reyes coastline and visitors are getting a show.
"It's pretty active out here," said John Golda, a ranger with the Point Reyes National Seashore. "The first elephant seal pups have been born and the big bull elephant seals are here. We saw 16 whales ... things are in full swing."
The park service offers a shuttle to view the action and it will run on Tuesday, New Year's Day as well as weekends through mid-April.
Because Point Reyes juts 10 miles into the ocean, it gives people close views of the whales, which are in the midst of their migration in which they log some 10,000 miles each year -- the longest of any mammal. They spend about a third of their lives migrating, scientists say.
The migration is driven by food. The Bering and Chukchi seas off Siberia and Alaska provide a feeding ground for whales, but as winter approaches and days grow shorter and colder, the whales begin their journey south to the warmer climate of Baja California. The whales are able to swim at 5 mph for as long as 20 hours at a time, putting on a show for land-dwellers along the way.
While they travel together for the journey, the whales separate at their destination. Then after up to three months of basking in the warm waters off Baja, they migrate back to Alaska and can again be seen at Point Reyes in March.
Closer to shore, northern elephant seals are massing at beaches along the point. North Drakes Beach near Chimney Rock is one of the better spots to see the large animals -- males can weigh up to 3,500 pounds, and females, 1,500 pounds.
The nearby Elephant Seal Overlook Trail provides the ideal -- and safe -- place to watch the goings on. Elephant seals spend 90 percent of their lives at sea, coming ashore to mate and give birth.
Dominant bull males run a harem and will take over a section of beach and mate with between 25 and 50 females as they fight off other males. The battles sometimes result in scarring on their chests.
While that scene plays out, nearby other elephant seals give birth to 60-pound babies. When pups are born, they stay with mom for 30 days, then go it alone on the beach for another 30 days before venturing off on their own. When they leave, they will be 300 pounds.
By the time peak pupping season comes in January there will be 1,400 elephant seals, including 300 pups, on Point Reyes beaches.
Contact Mark Prado via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
POINT REYES SHUTTLE
The Point Reyes National Seashore provides shuttle bus transportation for visitors to see the whales and elephant seals. The bus takes visitors from Drakes Beach to the lighthouse parking lot on weekends and holidays through mid-April. Bus service runs only in good weather. Ticket sales open at 9 a.m. at the Ken Patrick Visitor Center at Drakes Beach and close at 3 p.m. Children 16 and under are free; adult tickets are $5.
For information, call the Bear Valley Visitor Center at 464-5100, ext. 2, then press 1.