Nature’s exciting drama of life unfolds at Piedras Blancas elephant seals’ rookery. Do you enjoy nature photography? Then, go photograph this natural wonder’s boldest elements. At Piedras Blancas, you won’t have to pay for or rush your shoot to adhere to a tour’s set schedule. Access to the rookery is without admission fees and, although there are blue shirted Friends of Elephant Seals volunteers on site to answer questions, you visit independently without a tour guide. Access is simple and done via boardwalk and paths. Efficient ease and freedom to view, photograph, and experience sensory-filled moments make a visit to Piedras Blancas a special delight for any photographer.
Elephant seals are well-named. The massive males have notable, trunk-like noses. Adult males are impressive in size; the northern elephant seals at Piedras Blancas, according to the Marine Mammal Discovery Center, can weigh over 4,000 pounds and be over 12 feet in length. According to National Geographic, the very largest of elephant seals, the southern elephant seal that ranges in Antarctic waters, can weigh over 8,000 pounds.
Elephant seals are a conservation success story. These massive animals were once hunted, primarily for their blubber oil, to the very verge of extinction. Under the conservation shield of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, elephant seal numbers have rebounded. From breeding on remote islands, elephant seals now colonize mainland beaches such as Piedras Blancas in central California.
A dozen helpful tips for photographers
Some helpful details and tips can facilitate photographers considering the Piedras Blancas rookery location in central California.
- The rookery is open all year, every day. No reservations are required. No admission fee is charged. No parking fee is charged.
- During the winter season, the elephant seals are more active in the morning hours, especially between 9:30 to 11:00 AM.
- When the tide is high, there is less beach, so the elephant seals are pushed closer to the boardwalk viewing area.
- Be patient and watch for wildlife interactions such as females giving birth, birds flying down to feed on the placenta, mothers showing aggression to other females or pups, mothers vocalizing to bond with newborn pups, males fighting on harem territory or in the surf, or bulls breeding with females.
- There is one jut-out on the boardwalk, and that point allows a slightly deeper access for close-up shots. However, as the action shifts, many points on the boardwalk prove advantageous.
- Key access is at the main rookery location with its boardwalk. However, walking on the dirt pathways at the main rookery pull out as well as dirt paths at other pullouts on the 6 mile stretch of rookery beaches can provide views of other elephant seals in slightly different settings.
- Position yourself to avoid shooting into the sun.
- A 100 to 400 mm lens provides good flexibility at the main rookery.
- A tripod can be helpful especially in stabilizing against California coast winds.
- For handheld shooting, consider using the boardwalk railing, if possible, to facilitate stabilization.
- Dress in layers as the morning can be quite cold and turn warm by mid-day.
- Maintain a safe viewing distance. Elephant seals are unpredictable and can move quickly. Follow safe viewing regulations.
Location and times
Although not all are present at the same time, the Piedras Blancas land-based rookery is home to about 17,000 elephant seals. The winter season includes territory establishment, birthing, and breeding. Keep in mind that elephant seals spend 8 to 10 months of the year in the open sea, coming to their land-based rookery only twice a year.
To better target your visit, even within that winter season, to include a highly desired photographic interaction, review the Month-by-Month Rookery Calendar provided by Friends of the Elephant Seal. The winter has special wonders, but if you want to photograph and watch weaned pups learning to swim, then early spring is your target window.
The main rookery is on California Highway 1, just north of both San Simeon and Cambria. The viewing area is south of Big Sur. The GPS location of the main rookery is at 35° 39′ 48″ N and 121° 15′ 28″ W. Both parking and viewing are very accessible, so carry and use of photographic equipment is easy.
View this article’s accompanying slideshow to get a sense for the winter season at Piedras Blancas. All images were taken between January 19 through 22, 2016.
Other photographic opportunities in the Cambria area
There are inns and hotels in Cambria, about 14 miles from the rookery location. If you stay at an inn on Moonstone Drive, you simply have to walk across the street to a boardwalk along Moonstone Beach that stretches along the Pacific Ocean. That allows for great ease of ocean sunrise and sunset photography. Additionally, at the end of Moonstone Drive is Leffingwell Landing with it steps leading down to tide pools at low tide. Photographs at beach level, images of moonstones and tide pools, and views of crashing surf, all are possible at that location.
To facilitate planning, a digital Cambria Magazine and Visitors Guide is available online. The area’s local hikes and the quaint, coastal town of Cambria with its interesting assortment of galleries, shops, restaurants, and wineries easily can add to your photographic adventure.
Further, nearby photographic opportunities
California’s central coast near Cambria is rich with photographic opportunities. Other, nearby locations rich with photographic opportunities include a diversity of interesting stops and drives.
- Hearst Castle in San Simeon
- A drive on Cambria’s section of the Pacific Coast Wine Trail
- A drive onto the southern end of Big Sur for great landscapes.
- A visit to Monarch Grove at Pismo Beach to photograph wintering monarch butterflies
- A drive to photograph Morro Bay and Morro Rock and to view sea birds and sea otters
Go photograph wildlife
Photographers treasure nature’s wonders. When a location offers wonderful, easy access wildlife viewing, it is a special delight for photographers. The elephant seal rookery on California’s central coast at Piedras Blancas truly is a marvelous Go Photograph opportunity! Don’t miss the unique chance to view and photograph the sensory-filled adventure of a living, active rookery filled with massive elephant seals.
Find the take in this article to be helpful? National and International Travel and Recreation as well as National Education and Industry materials come from a husband and wife creative team, who travel extensively in retirement as photonaturalists and writers. One is a retired research scientist with a doctorate in Material Sciences and background in optics research. The other holds a graduate degree in humanities and is the former Vice President of GKE (Global Knowledge Exchange), who served as a US Web-based Education Commissioner during the Clinton administration, and was a former US National Tech&Learning Teacher of the Year.
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