It all began on November 25, 1990 when fewer than two dozen elephant seals were counted in the small cove just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. Spring of 1991 brought almost 400 seals to molt. In January of 1992 the first birth occurred. The colony grew at a phenomenal rate. In 1993, about 50 pups were born. In 1995, 600 pups were born. The population explosion was underway. By 1996 the number of pups born soared to almost 1000 and the colony stretched all the way to the beaches that run along the Coast Highway.
Where did the animals come from that began populating the Piedras Blancas beaches? Re-sightings of tagged animals indicate that most were from San Miguel Island, San Nicolas Island, and Ano Nuevo. However, all the major rookeries were represented. Overcrowding or failure to successfully wean pups may have prompted them to move.
The rapid expansion of the colony in such a brief time was accompanied by growing pains. Anyone who drove along this stretch of the coastal highway from 1994-1997 knows what a dangerous situation was developing. Visitors parked their vehicles illegally on both sides of the narrow highway, then scrambled over fencing and made their way over private property to view the seals. Now, thanks to a highway realignment and a trade of property between the state and the Hearst Corporation, there is a safe parking area and a legal viewpoint.
Friends of the Elephant Seal was formed in November of 1997. The goal of this dedicated group of volunteers is education. Docents are at the viewpoint to answer questions and help visitors get the most from their viewing experience. Public safety and respect for the seals are prime considerations.
Iimprovements at the vista point have further enhanced the viewing experience, with a new boardwalk built by the California Conservation Corps with suppor from the Califonia Coastal Conservancy, interpretive signs provided by the California State Parks and handicapped parking lot improvements and access provided by California Department of Transportation. Bluff fencing has been added in an attempt to control runaway erosion.
Since it is speculated that elephant seals return to mate on the same beaches where they were born, the colony will likely continue to grow. Historically speaking, man has been the greatest enemy of the elephant seal. Their numbers have rebounded, but they still face threats from man. Pollution, disease, and harassment are a few of the obstacles they encounter. What will happen as the number of animals increases and they possibly move on to beaches now claimed for use by man? Can elephant seals and human beings peacefully coexist?
All known rookeries of the northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris are on islands or beaches off North America. They range from Vancouver Island in the north - the only Canadian rookery - to Cedros Island off Baja California. Twelve of the fifteen known rookeries are on the coast of California.
The mainland rookeries, such as Piedras Blancas, Ano Nuevo, and Point Reyes are relatively recent rookeries.
Whether there were mainland rookeries prior to the seal hunts is a subject of debate. Some researchers feel that historically elephant seals would have avoided mainland locations because of predators such as grizzly bears, mountain lions, and early people who lived along the coast. There is, however, a description of hunting elephant seals at Point Reyes in the 1800s.