A Brief History of Elephant Seals at Point Reyes
After being absent for more than 150 years, northern elephant seals returned to sandy pocket beaches on the south side of the Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. In 1981, the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. Between 1988 and 1993, the population grew at a dramatic annual average rate of 32%. Since 1993, the average growth rate has slowed to 8–9% per year. Fanning out from their initial secluded south-facing beaches of the headlands, the seals have since expanded to beaches which are not as remote, including, after 2019, Drakes Beach adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.
When are Elephant Seals Present at Point Reyes?
While some elephant seals may be present at Point Reyes on any given day of the year, the greatest number of seals haul out on beaches around the headlands from December through March for the birthing and mating season, and in the spring when adult females and juveniles haul out to molt.
The males are the first to arrive here, in December, in an effort to stake out a claim on the beach they hope to dominate. Then pregnant females begin to arrive and, soon thereafter, give birth to a single pup (or, in an extremely rare case, twins). The southwest Drakes Beach colony, which can be viewed from the Elephant Seal Overlook, can number over 600 animals by early February.
From the Elephant Seal Overlook, you can witness the fascinating behavior of these animals, including male dominance contests, birthing of pups, and the interactions of mothers and pups. You will hear the distinctive vocalizations of females and pups, as well as the powerful trumpeting of the adult males (referred to as "bulls"), which can be heard for over a mile.
After a month of nursing, female elephant seals will wean their pups and head back out to sea for a month or two of feeding to replenish deleted energy reserves, leaving the weaned pups ("weaners") to survive on their own. Once adult females have left the colonies, adult males will also depart. By mid-April, most of the pups have left the area to find food. In early April, juvenile seals and adult females come to shore for two to three weeks in order to molt (shed their skin). Toward the end of the spring, the female molt has concluded and they head back to sea for a longer feeding period. The juvenile molt extends into early summer when the adult males start to haul out for their molting season. There tend to be very few elephant seals at Point Reyes in the late summer, but on most days a few elephant seals may still be seen from the Elephant Seal Overlook. By mid-September, juveniles will return to shore for a resting haul out. During this time, the juvenile seals are still growing and being onshore allows their bones and muscles to develop properly. It also gets them in sync with the coming on shore twice a year pattern and allows the seals to do this before the breeding season, in which they are too young to participate.
Check out our Weekly Elephant Seal updates to learn the latest news.
Elephant Seals at Drakes Beach
Last updated: January 14, 2021
Bull elephant seals returned to Drakes Beach in early December 2020 and pregnant females followed by late December. Visitors may view elephant seals at Drake Beach from the sidewalk along the southern edge of the parking lot, from the beach immediately below the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, and, potentially, as they walk along Drakes Beach to the east, e.g., toward the mouth of Drakes Estero. There is no need to RSVP, purchase tickets, or make reservations to visit Drakes Beach.
The beach to the southwest (e.g., towards Chimney Rock; to the right as one faces the bay) of the Drakes Beach parking lot is closed to all entry through March 31, 2021. (See Interactive Map below.) Please review the Seal viewing tips below before coming to Drakes Beach. There are signs, fences, and other barriers that have been set up to mark closed areas; please respect the closures and do not enter closed areas. Citations will be issued to those who disregard the closures.
Drakes Beach is Closed until Further Notice
On Thursday, January 14, 2021, Drakes Beach was closed until further notice to better ensure the safety of visitors and the safety of the increasing number of elephant seals hauling out at Drakes Beach. Visitors are still welcome to drive to the Drakes Beach parking lot and view the elephant seals from the sidewalk, but the beach (e.g., the non-paved areas on the beachside of the parking lot) is closed.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center is closed, although there are park personnel at Drakes Beach to provide safe elephant seal viewing opportunities for the public. Please follow all guidelines issued by public health officials, especially those regarding wearing a mask and staying at least six feet away from people you don't live with.
Peter Behr Overlook
The Peter Behr Overlook may be reached by following a steep, narrow paved path from the southwest corner of the parking lot to bluff-top viewpoint. It offers a great view of Drakes Bay, Chimney Rock, and Drakes Beach to the east…but not much of a view of the section of beach to the west on which most of the elephant seals are hauled out. For your safety, and the safety of the seals on the beach below, please stay on the paved path and do not go over or around the wooden fencing at the end of the paved trail. Loose soil and/or rock along the blufftops can give way suddenly and you may fall. Or you might initiate a rockfall or landslide that injures or kills the seals on the beach below. Also, there is a lot of poison oak growing among the vegetation surrounding the trail and overlook.
Despite the limited amount of space at the overlook, it is a very popular viewpoint…which is problematic due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Take a look up toward the overlook before heading up the trail. If there are more than a few people at the overlook, please be patient and wait for some of them to depart so that you don't crowd them and so that you can maintain six feet of distance from those who are not part of your household. And please wear a mask.
Winter Shuttle Bus System
The Winter Shuttle Bus System has been cancelled for the winter of 2020–2021.
Seal viewing tips
Feeding or Harassing Marine Mammals in the Wild is Illegal and Harmful to the Animals
Why is it illegal to feed, attempt to feed, or harass marine mammals in the wild?
Feeding, attempting to feed, and harassment of marine mammals in the wild by anyone is prohibited by regulations enacted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Feeding, attempting to feed, or otherwise harassing marine mammals in the wild was made illegal because it is harmful to the animals in the following ways:
How is "harassment" defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act?
Harassment means any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance that has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (Level A harassment); or that has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering, but does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (Level B harassment).
More information on this topic may be found on the National Marine Fisheries Service's Frequent Questions – Feeding or Harassing Marine Mammals in the Wild page.
Elephant Seal Protection Areas:
Download the Elephant Seal Protection Closures Map, which shows the areas that are affected by the year-round and/or seasonal closures described below. (1,179 KB PDF)
Drakes Beach Elephant Seal Colony Year-Round Closure
The Drakes Beach elephant seal colony as delineated by signs at the western-most end of Drakes Beach is closed to all entry due to seal activity at all times of the year. This closure is necessary to protect an established elephant seal colony from disturbance and protect the public. The elephant seal colony is used all year. No management action other than a year-round closure is sufficient.
From December 15 to March 31, the following areas are closed to all entry in order to better protect nursing elephant seal pups:
Drakes Beach Temporary Beach Closure - January 13, 2019, through late April 2019
Interactive Map Illustrating the Locations of the Closures Referenced Above
During weekends and holidays, highly trained docents staff the Elephant Seal Overlook and Drakes Beach. They have binoculars, spotting scopes, and a wealth of information to share with you.
Last updated: January 15, 2021