Flipper Colony Gets the Seal of Approval

About 45 miles south of San Francisco is a colony of elephant seals (so named for the trunk-like noses of the males) living unusually close to human inspection.

The seals usually breed on remote offshore islands, such as Ano Nuevo Island, where they are protected from man and other predators. When Ano Nuevo became too crowded 10 years ago, some seals moved to the mainland, where tourists can now see them on guided walking tours at the state reserve.

A mile hike across rolling sand dunes brings you close enough to witness ferocious battles between three-ton bulls fighting for harem rights, accorded only to the winner.

Researchers have been studying elephant seals at Ano Nuevo since the '60s. In 1983, 450 pups were born on the mainland. One in 10 died in winter storms or, more commonly, was crushed beneath a sleeping adult.

After being hunted nearly to extinction, the seals have made a comeback, thanks to protection laws enacted in the 1920s. Their world population is now about 80,000.

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