Get a front-row view of trekking whales and loung­ing ele­phant seals

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - COMMUNITY - By Marta Ya­mamoto

Even in the midst of the Bay Area’s hus­tle and bus­tle, see­ing win­ter wildlife is as easy as a drive to Point Reyes Na­tional Seashore. There, where the Pa­cific surf laps the shore, you can marvel at mi­grat­ing gray whales and ele­phant seals hauled out on the beach.

Jut­ting 10 miles into the Pa­cific, the Point Reyes Penin­sula is a great spot for whale-watch­ing en­thu­si­asts. It’s bor­dered by the pro­tected Greater Far­al­lones Na­tional Ma­rine Sanc­tu­ary, cre­at­ing a food-rich 20-mile-wide high­way for gray and hump­back whales on their mi­gra­tion be­tween Alaska and Mex­ico.

Throw in a newly re­stored 1870 light­house and an ev­er­ex­pand­ing ele­phant seal colony, and you have the per­fect recipe for cre­at­ing your own mul­ti­stop wildlife watch­ing tour, one you can re­peat into spring, track­ing whale mi­gra­tion pat­terns, ele­phant seal colony size and their cy­cle of life. All for the price of a shut­tle ticket and just a cou­ple of hours’ drive away.

This three-stop tour in­cludes Point Reyes Light­house, Chim­ney Rock and Drakes Beach, which you can visit on week­days by car, or on week­ends and hol­i­days by manda­tory park-op­er­ated shut­tle. Since the week­end op­tion has the ad­van­tage of vol­un­teer docents and ranger talks, I’m opt­ing for the shut­tle.

Point Reyes Light­house is whale-watch cen­tral. Re­cently re­opened af­ter a 15-month re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion project, it’s all spruced up with equip­ment im­prove­ments and new path­way. Gray whales are vis­i­ble from the ob­ser­va­tion deck — or you can take a 300step trek to the light­house it­self — as they head south from Alaska to Mex­ico each Jan­uary and re­turn north­ward in March.

Whales spend a third of their life on their 10,000-mile mi­gra­tion, so on this par­tic­u­lar win­try day, I op­ti­misti­cally scan the sea for del­i­cate, heart-shaped plumes and flukes, spout­ing, sound­ing and spy-hop­ping, when heads poke ver­ti­cally out of the wa­ter. Even with­out sight­ings, it’s a lovely thing know­ing they’re out there.

On week­ends, there’s an added treat with the Jour­ney of the Whales ranger pro­gram, and win­ter wildlife docents on hand with an­swers, as well as binoc­u­lars and scopes.

Next stop, Chim­ney Rock and ele­phant seals. The ele­phant seals ar­rived at the Point Reyes Head­lands in the 1970s, liked what they found — and they keep com­ing back. The main colony is best seen from the Ele­phant Seal Over­look above Drakes Bay, with cast and be­hav­ior chang­ing monthly through spring.

A ca­coph­ony of sound is my first clue to their pres­ence: bull males’ deep-throated trum­pet­ing, moms’ lower rum­blings and the pups’ high-pitched screech­ing sound­ing like a troop of mon­keys.

The scene un­folds with bulls oc­cu­py­ing their claim, some­times re­liev­ing ten­sion chest to chest and pro­boscis to pro­boscis, fe­males giv­ing birth and nurs­ing their sin­gle pups, and bach­e­lors hang­ing out on the out­skirts. They don’t eat or drink while hauled out on the beach, re­sum­ing only when they be­gin their 11,000-mile mi­gra­tion, trav­el­ing up to a mile deep in ocean wa­ters.

A few ele­phant seals haul out at the beach near the His­toric Lifeboat Sta­tion. I watch a well-scarred bull, a mother nurs­ing her pup and a group of im­ma­ture males, one whose puppy-eyes are hard to ig­nore.

A short hike to the end of Chim­ney Rock Trail of­fers an­other whale-sight­ing op­por­tu­nity, and a view to the sea that feels like the end of the world.

At Drakes Beach, ele­phant seals took ad­van­tage of last year’s gov­ern­ment shut­down and oc­cu­pied a sec­tion of both the beach and park­ing lot. Now they’re back, of­fer­ing a rare close-up view of life on land.

I watch in awe as bulls, who ap­peared im­mo­bile, sud­denly take off, two tons of un­du­lat­ing blub­ber and mus­cle scoot­ing across the beach sur­pris­ingly quickly. It’s a good re­minder to stay a safe dis­tance away and re­spect their space.

Re­turn in spring and you’ll see mother whales and their calves swim­ming closer to land to re­turn north, their breath­ing sounds some­times au­di­ble. Ele­phant seal fe­males will be molt­ing and weaned pups — called wean­ers — will be lament­ing their lone­li­ness. And Chim­ney Rock’s vi­brantly hued wild­flow­ers will try to steal the show. Don’t miss it.


The mi­gra­tion path be­tween Alaska and Mex­ico brings gray whales, such as this cow and its calf, near the shores of Point Reyes.

From the over­look at Point Reyes, you can see ele­phant seals frol­ick­ing in the surf and lolling about the beach.

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