The annual seal protection measures begin on Monday, March 1st as harbor seal pupping begins. Drakes Estero closes to boating as does South Blue Gums Beach on Tomales Bay. Harbor seals, silvery in color and much smaller than elephant seals, will begin returning to the protected coves along Drakes Estero and in Tomales Bay to deliver and nurse pups. The parents may leave the pup ashore for short periods of time while they catch a meal in the water – be sure to give all seals on land a wide berth to allow them to rest during this critical periods of their life cycle.
Elephant seals continue to depart the Headlands with plenty of activity between males after the females and pups turning up on Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach. Many of the young seals are molting and their paler old coat will appear torn up. This raggedy appearance is normal and they are conserving energy by lying on the beach as their new fur grows.
As winter arrives, we’ll be seeing the Northern elephant seals (lounging in certain areas) and Pacific gray whales (migrating past the peninsula) return to the Point Reyes area. This wildlife also brings lots of visitors and the return of the shuttle bus system that takes folks out to Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse. The shuttle system will begin Saturday, December 26, 2009 and run through mid-April 2010. More from the Park Service.
Limited parking is available at prime viewing areas such as the Historic Lighthouse and Chimney Rock headlands. Bus service eases congestion in these areas and reduces green house gas emissions. The shuttle transportation system was identified in the Headlands Management Plan as an important tool to protect the fragile headlands but also allow access for visitors.
Bus service runs only on weekends and holidays in good weather. Ticket sales open at 9:00 a.m. at the Ken Patrick Visitor Center at Drakes Beach and close at 3:00 p.m. Children 16 and under are free, adult tickets are $5.00 per person and Federal Senior and Access pass discounts apply to the purchase. Sir Francis Drake Highway is closed at the South Beach junction when the busses are operating. Road closures begin at 9:00 a.m. and the road reopens approximately at 5:15 p.m. For more information, please call the Bear Valley Visitor Center at (415) 464-5100 x2 x5 or visit our Winter Shuttle Bus System page.
This weekend (Jan 18), we went out to Drakes’ Beach and saw some elephant seals up close and personal. One camped himself right next to parking lot; the one in the picture was about 3/4 miles south.
To see elephant seals at Point Reyes, get yourself to Drake’s Beach. From there, you can take the shuttle to Chimney Rock where 200+ seals are sparring, pupping, hanging. It’s a remarkable sight but you’re seeing it from a distance. At low tides (check Point Reyes tides) at Drakes’ Beach, you can probably see one of the loners hanging out as well.
Update: The National Park Service has produced a terrific video on the elephant seals. Check it out.
Here are some highlights from the National Park Service Park Wavelengths newsletter:
Young elephant seals have made an early appearance at Chimney Rock ; about 40 sub-adults (rowdy teenagers!) are on the beach practicing their wrestling and noisemaking skills in preparation for the winter breeding season
Humpback whale sightings off Limantour and Agate Beaches continue to delight visitors. Look for their long curved fin and tails with white underneath to distinguish them.
Hikers and Bikers especially on the Bolinas Ridge Trail should be watchful of the beef cattle calving season; cows are very defensive of their calves and may stare and or approach if they feel threatened.
Numerous warblers are resting in the trees at the Fish Docks after last weekends storm – prothonotary, black polled, yellow rumped, and palm with a Downy woodpecker in the mix.
Turns out there is plenty to do in January in Point Reyes. On a nice, sunny day, the beaches and hikes are as pleasant as ever. Just bring another layer and get started a little earlier. Once the sun goes down early, it can get chilly.
But January also brings unique opportunities for those of us who want to see wildlife.
* Whale Watching from the Lighthouse and Chimney Rock. This is a popular enough event that the Park Service closes the road to the lighthouse point and runs buses from the Drakes Beach Visitors Center ($5 per person). While I have not ever caught site of a whale on these trips, I still enjoy the trip out to the point. The Park Service has a good page on whale watching from the point.
* Breeding Elephant Seals. I like to head out to Chimney Rock to watch the wales, because it is also possible that the elephant seals are on the beach hanging out and breeding. This year, they are out en masse! They are fun to watch as they lie and shift around in the sun. From the Chimney Rock parking lot, look for signs that direct you on a short trail heading south.
* Salmon Run. From mid-Dec to mid-January (over for 2008), SPAWN lead groups from the town of Lagunitas to find salmon that swam upstream and lay their eggs. The whole process is fascinating and newbies should take the tour as it can be difficult to find the salmon without an experienced eye. You can find out more at the SPAWN web site.