Elephant Seals. No one would call them “cute”

It’s taken me two years plus to…finally…write about the seven-day California Road Trip Mr. Penfire and I took with our great friends, Joan and Dave. Thanks for following along. Who knows were I might decide to travel back to next!

Day Seven (Part One):

Our last morning “on the road.” After breakfast it was up and out. We wanted to stop in the town of Cambria to do a little gift shopping. Our daughter had tipped me off to Lucia’s Apothecary, and in fact, asked me to replenish her supply of soap scrub. This of course inspired Joan and me to buy lots of scrubs and lotions in lots of fragrances, (for ourselves, her three daughters,and daughter-in-law, my two girls) . It’s wonderful to support small businesses that make good products. We puttered around a bit, filled the gas tank, then  headed north before heading south.

For every tour at the Hearst Castle, it’s necessary to take a bus from the Visitor Center up the winding road to the top of La Cuesta Encantada. Throughout the the drive (both up and down) the driver plays an informational soundtrack narrated by Alex Trebek, which becomes painfully familiar after two or more tours. (It’s a wonder the repetition doesn’t drive the driver to the point of wanting to drive the bus right off the road at one of the hairpin turns. So far I have heard to reports of this having happened.) On the way down Trebek mentions not just the possibility of seeing Zebras (descendants of Hearst’s collection of exotic animals) among the cattle on the vast Hearst Ranch acreage along Highway 1, but the Elephant Seal Rookery just four miles up the road. So of course we decided we had to go see the seals.

We parked the car, and traversed the puddle-strewn parking lot to the walkways at the top of the dunes. There, peering over fences, we found ourselves agog at the large, lazy, lumpy expanse of what must be among nature’s most unattractive sea creatures. Elephant seals have fat bulbous noses that make them quite a bit less cute than their more sleek-nosed cousins. The males weigh in at up to 5,000 pounds, and can grow to be 16 feet long. The females are downright petite in comparison–at only about 1,800 pounds (and perhaps 12 feet long)  Signs placed frequently along the walkway remind us that these are wild animals, unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

This is molting season so there are hundreds and hundreds of these unattractive creatures (made even more unattractive by the molting process) blanketing this beach  that is their rookery. (Beyond the confines of the rookery that’s marked off for the benefit of tourists, they also feel free to lounge around in the grassy pastures that border the highway, and on the road itself..) The adult seals  have come ashore to grow new skin and hair, a process that renders them lethargic to say the least. Meanwhile, the young males, entertain themselves by sparring—butting heads, honking noisily—putting on quite a show in the shallows offshore. Of course I couldn’t resist grabbing a free copy of E-Seal News (not sure how I ended up with three copies!)–a little newsletter which I only just now got around to reading. It tells that the seals have been coming to Piedras Blancas (this stretch of shoreline; its name translates to “White Stones”)  since 1990, though most of their rookeries are on the islands off the coasts of California and Mexico. Hunted aggressively by the early 20th century (for their blubber), they were saved from extinction when kerosene and refined petroleum products became more economical to process. Since then, the elephant seal population has bounced back from a low of fewer than 50 to more than 200,000.

I picked up, somewhere along the way, a card with information about the Piedras Blancas Light Station, just a couple of miles farther north, which is currently being restored. The card outlined an extremely sporadic schedule of tours. But we did not make it to the lighthouse (a lighthouse is not something that a lifelong New Englander would consider a sight so rare that it justifies an adjustment to a set itinerary). . And so, after watching the elephant seals a good chunk of time, taking photos, and even videos, we left  these amphibious curiosities behind and headed to our final stop.