Every year between December and March the central California coast is home to an incredible phenomenon: hundreds of Northern Elephant Seals come ashore to fight, mate, give birth, and nurse. There are several rookeries where the animals gather, the two most famous ones being Piedras Blancas and Ano Nuevo. I visited Piedras Blancas this past weekend, and was simply astounded by the sight!

The males arrive in December, and battle for the opportunity to stay on the beach for the following several months to mate after the females are done nursing. During that time the alpha males will get little time to relax, and no time at all to drink or eat. The strange elongated elephant trunk like nose they sport is in fact an adaptation to aid in reducing water loss, as well as helping to amplify the loud grunting sounds they make to assert their dominance.

"Slumbering Beast" ~ Piedras Blancas, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm f/4, tripod + sidekick
Exposure: iso 50, f/16, 1.6 sec

During their brief moments of rest on the beach they may look like fat docile cuddly creatures, but make no mistake, these 9,000 lb beasts are incredibly dangerous (they are in fact the largest animal in the order Carnivora, which includes lions, tigers, and bears, (oh my!)). The older males all have heavily scarred skin, and their necks are covered in bloody scabs from brutal fights. The fights typically break out when one male wanders too close to another one’s territory (ie. group of ladies), then they take it out to the open sand or water and sort things out.

"The Fight" ~ Piedras Blancas, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm f/4, tripod + sidekick
Exposure: iso 400, f/11, 1/200th sec

"The Loser" ~ Piedras Blancas, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm f/4 + 1.4x tc, tripod + sidekick
Exposure: iso 400, f/11, 1/160th sec

Females begin arriving mid-December and give birth within a few days of coming ashore. By mid January the majority of the females have arrived and the beach is packed with their blubbery bodies and little pups. The mothers will then nurse their pups for about four weeks, during which time the youngsters will grow from 70 lbs to over 300 lbs. By the time they’re done nursing the females are exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, having just spent the last month or more without any sustenance. Before heading back to sea to feed, they mate with one of the alpha males so they can start the cycle all over again.

Getting a creative photo that told the complete story of the scene was a real challenge. But under the unlikely conditions of clear skies and full sun around 11am (almost) everything came together. I say almost, because well, it’s tough to get 150 subjects to cooperate, but they did remarkably well! I didn’t make up that number of 150, I actually did try to count the seals in the photo. Based on that count I’d estimate that there were easily over 600 Elephant Seals at the beach that day.

"Face Off" ~ Piedras Blancas, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 500mm f/4, tripod + sidekick
Exposure: iso 400, f/32, 1/250th sec
Notes: f/32 was required to get everything in focus here, due to the focal length.

While the day was perfectly clear and comfortably warm, a thin set of clouds rolled in for sunset on Saturday and promised an exciting sunset. What caught me by surprise, however, was just as the sun dipped below the ocean’s horizon I saw an unmistakeable green blob appear for about two seconds: the green flash! I had never seen it before, so it was a real highlight for me. Unfortunately I had my wide angle mounted, so I don’t have any photos to share. If you’re unfamiliar with this rare and fascinating phenomenon, read up on it (on wikipedia) and stay alert next time you’re at the beach for sunset!

"Sunset Rookery" ~ Piedras Blancas, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, Nikon 14-24mm + adapter
Exposure (sky): iso 100, ~f/14, 1/25thth
Exposure (foreground): iso 100, ~f/14, 1/5th

What I found most fascinating about the experience is that in one place, at one time, you can see so much of the life cycle of this one animal: fights for dominance, births, nursing, and mating. Just be prepared for some crowds – it was packed when I was there. Fortunately the seals are so loud, that you hardly notice the people.


16 Comments to “Elephants of the Sea”

  1. jeff green says:

    I really like the “Sunset Rookery” image! It takes on an almost surreal look with the sunset and the seals strung about like they washed up on shore. Many sunset images suffer for lack of an interesting foreground, but you have definitely provided an interesting one here! 🙂

  2. Ariel says:

    Wow Floris… 🙂

  3. Floris, Thanks for the post. I look forward to reading and looking at where you have been and what you have shot. I am thankful and forever grateful that you post about your techniques. I could ask question after question like a five year old but perhaps another time and place may be more appropriate.
    Keep on snapping, sharing and inspiring!

  4. Fantastic photographs and a very interesting story as always!

    This is my favorite photoblog so keep up the good work 🙂

  5. Lois Elling says:

    Thanks for posting this and the wonderful photos. It reminds me of the time we were at Piedras Blancas a few years ago in March. They were fascinating and I could have stayed for hours. I love the first photo, which contrasts the bulky, heavy animal and the almost ethereal water. Love the sunset shot, too, of course! I always enjoy your pictures.

  6. John Wall says:

    Excellent post, as always! Did you notice there are five (5) pups gathered around that one cow in the sunset shot?! What’s up with that! 🙂

  7. Thanks everyone!

    John – yes I noticed that too, strange huh? I know that some pups try to steal milk from other mothers.. perhaps they’re sneaky thieves?

  8. Richard Wong says:

    That is great, Floris! You got an amazing sunset.

  9. kari says:

    Wonderful images. I especially like the first, and the two last ones. Very nice!

  10. Ramathasan Thevamaran says:

    Brilliant Photos Floris. And a nice story telling. I feel like going there. 🙂


  11. Jeroen says:


    I follow your blog for a few months now and every entry you make is filled with not only magnificent images, but also with good stories. For me, you are the #1 nature photographer and I hope we all can enjoy your blogs for a long time to come!
    And now the obvious question from someone from the Netherlands: are you Dutch?

  12. Jeroen – Thanks! Yes, as you might suspect from the name, I am indeed Dutch. I was born in California, but my parents are both from the Netherlands (Oisterwijk and Hengelo), and I do speak Dutch fluently.

  13. Pat Ulrich says:

    Awesome post, Floris! The annual arrival of the elephant seals is a truly amazing spectacle to experience. The fighting shot is really great with the left bull really extending his height, and the hazy beach shot is just awesome with the two males standing off face to face!

  14. Chris Kayler says:

    Great series of photos! Love the sunset rookery … epic!

  15. Adam Pinnell says:

    Wow! Gorgeous photos! Fantastic use of color!