Picture: Bull Elephant seal coming ashore at Año Nuevo State Park, near Santa Cruz, California
“Could you two move back a little further?” – You might think the title of this blog post refers to the two seagulls standing in the way of this bull elephant seal coming ashore at Año Nuevo State Park. Well, it could be…, but it’s not.
Last week I had the fun and good fortune to chaperone (read: chauffer) my son and his friend on a school field trip to see the elephant seal colony at Año Nuevo State Park, just north of Santa Cruz. We were on the first tour of the day, having left home at 5:30 Am. Halfway through the 1.5 mile walk to the beach, we met up with the naturalist who would be leading our group out to the elephant seal colony. (Naturalist-led tours are the only way to visit the elephant seal colony during mating season, which runs from December 15 to March 31.) I had my trusty 28-70mm f/2.8 lens on my camera to get pictures of our hike through the sand dunes.
We arrived at the edge of the seal colony, looking out from an overlook on top of a sand berm. The naturalist was pointing out and explaining to the students all the various animal behaviors we were seeing in front of us. To get pictures of the most populated portions of the colony, I switched lenses, opting to use my big, 500mm f/4 fixed-length lens. (Think: Football sideline photographers) We were then met by the Ranger who was there to protect everybody, and the second tour group of students. All of a sudden, the cry goes out, “Fight!”
Picture: Two bull Elephant seals fighting during mating season at Año Nuevo State Park, near Santa Cruz, California
Immediately behind us, on the backside of the sand berm, two large bull elephant seals start fighting within 25 feet of our group. And true to form for a pack of students when someone yells “fight”, everyone turns around in unison. The ranger quickly recognizes the situation, has us all back up, telling us how quickly these guys can move. And that’s exactly what happens; the bulls start carrying their fight in our direction, moving up the back slope of the sand berm. All of this is happening within 90 seconds.
I’m busy shooting as fast as I can, but there’s simply no time to change my lens. The fight carries to within 15 feet of the group before the defeated bull moves off toward the ocean. The winner remains close too to the group, so the ranger has us leave by an ‘emergency backdoor path’, exiting a safe distance away.
A few moments later, the ranger catches up with our group, and he and the naturalist are abuzz with what we’ve just witnessed. Repeatedly, they both explained to our group how lucky we were as a group to have seen a fight so close. The naturalist says she’s never seen anything like that, and the Ranger tells us he’s only seen a fight so close twice in all his years at the park. Over and over again, “You’re SO lucky.” So, what could possibly be the problem?
As I mentioned, I had no time to change my lens. In non-photographer terms, shooting something like this so close, with such a big lens, is like shooting a class photo from 15 feet away, using a telescope. Given the equipment I was using, I would have been happier if the fight happened four or five times further away. But you just can’t ask 10,000 pounds of angry mammals to move further back, now can you?
Anyway, here are a few other nice shots I got from the field trip.
Picture: Elephant seal colony at Año Nuevo State Park, near Santa Cruz, California