After being absent for more than 150 years, elephant seals returned to the sandy Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. In 1981, the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. Since then, researchers have found that the colony is growing at a dramatic annual average rate of 16 percent. Fanning out from their initial secluded spot, the seals have expanded to popular beaches.
From December through March, a breeding colony of elephant seals can be observed from Elephant Seal Overlook near Chimney Rock, above beautiful Drakes Bay. The males are the first to arrive here, in December, to stake out a claim on the beach. Then pregnant females begin to arrive and soon give birth to a single pup. Subadult and juvenile animals arrive and the Drakes Beach colony can number close to nine hundred animals.
From the 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.
Due to the high volume of traffic out to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas during the elephant seal pupping and mating season and the gray whale migration, the park will be operating a shuttle bus system from the Drakes Beach parking lot (usually from New Year's to Easter each year on weekends and holidays—weather permitting). Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from South Beach to the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock areas WILL BE CLOSED during shuttle operating hours. Check the "Shuttles, Whales, and Elephant Seals" recording at 415-464-5100 x2 x3 x1 for updates on whether shuttles are operating.
Seal viewing tips:
For your own safety, always observe elephant seals from a distance. Use binoculars, telephoto lenses, and spotting scopes for a better view of the animals. If a seal becomes alert or nervous and begins to move away, you are too close.
Stay at least 50 yards (46 meters) from any marine mammal.
Do not come between a cow and pup, a bull and a group of cows, or two bulls challenging each other.
Watch quietly; whisper. Move slowly.
Limit overall viewing time to no more than 30 minutes.
Avoid abrupt movements or loud noises around marine mammals
Move away cautiously if behaviors are observed that indicate the animal is stressed.
Avoid touching or swimming with wild marine mammals, even if they approach you.
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:
It causes marine mammals to lose their natural wariness of humans or boats and become conditioned to receiving handouts and associate people with food.
It changes their natural behaviors, including feeding and migration activities, and decreases their willingness to forage for food on their own. They may also begin to take bait/catch from fishing gear. These changed behaviors may be passed on to their young and other members of their social groups and increases their risk of injury from boats, entanglement in fishing gear, and intentional harm by people frustrated with the behavioral changes.
Some of the items that are fed to marine mammals may be contaminated (old or spoiled) or not food at all. Feeding marine mammals inappropriate food, non-food items, or contaminated food jeopardizes their health.
Marine mammals sometimes become aggressive when seeking food, and are known to bite or injure people when teased or expecting food.
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).
From December 15 to March 31, the following areas are closed to all entry in order to better protect nursing elephant seal pups:
the southern end of South Point Reyes Beach (as signed) to the Lighthouse;
the beach from the Chimney Rock Lifeboat Station to Chimney Rock; and
the road leading from the gate at the end of the Chimney Rock Road to the Fish Dock area, including immediately adjacent beaches. (Map - 301 KB PDF)
Drakes Beach Temporary Beach Closure - Dates for the 2019 elephant seal pupping season have yet to be determined. The dates in 2018 were from January 13 through March 15.
A temporary closure of Drakes Beach starting at the southern edge of the cove in front of the Ken Patrick Visitor Center and continuing south to the current permanent elephant seal closure was in effect to better protect elephant seals from disturbance during the pupping season when they are exceptionally vulnerable. All public use was prohibited. Determination of Temporary Closure - January 27, 2018, through March 15, 2018 - signed on January 25, 2018 (65 KB PDF) Map of Drakes Beach Temporary Closure (123 KB PDF)
(415) 464-5100 This number will initially be answered by an automated attendant, from which one can opt to access a name directory, listen to recorded information about the park (i.e., directions to the park; visitor center hours of operation; weather forecast; fire danger information; shuttle bus system status; wildlife updates; ranger-led programs; seasonal events; etc.), or speak with a ranger. Please note that if you are calling between 4:30 pm and 10 am, park staff may not be available to answer your call.