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February 28, 2006 > An unforgettable field trip

An unforgettable field trip

by Arathi Satish

The past month was exciting for the 6th graders at John Gomes Elementary School in Fremont. Each of the classes took turns visiting Ano Nuevo State Reserve. The field trip is one 6th graders really look forward to each year because they get the opportunity to see the large colony of northern elephant seals that assemble each winter.

"Typically, this is the first time students have visited Ano Nuevo and have the opportunity to observe elephant seals in the wild," Gomes 6th grade teacher Mrs. Ferreira said. "This trip also addresses the California Science standards in life science."

Since 1992, 6th graders from Gomes have traveled 55 miles to the reserve located south of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge at a rocky windswept point along the Pacific Ocean. In early January 1603, Don Sebastian Vizciano saw the area for the first time. It was aptly named Punta del Ano Nuevo, which means New Year's point in Spanish.

The reserve is also home to nocturnal animals like bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, weasels, brush rabbits and black tailed deer. Bird life in Ano Nuevo varies from season to season. During their recent visit, students were able to see many brown pelicans. A variety of birds can also be spotted in the area throughout the year such as mallards, pintails and wigeons as well as a diverse species of humming birds.

Ano Nuevo also provides a resting place for pinnipeds (animals with finlike feet and flippers). In addition to northern elephant seals, harbor seals, and California sea lions can also be found.

Elephant seals are huge animals that spend most of their lives at sea and come ashore to molt, mate and give birth. The breeding season in San Francisco begins in December, when males (bulls) begin arriving weighing approximately two and one-half tons and measure 12 to 14 feet long. The bulls fight to establish dominance. An alpha bull emerges as the strongest and does most of the breeding.

By the end of December, the females begin to arrive and form "harems" on the beach. Usually, they are smaller than the males, and measure from eight to 10 feet in length and weigh up to 1,600 pounds. Many give birth within a week of their arrival to pups conceived the previous year. In general the females give birth to one pup and feed it for 25 to 28 days. Mother's milk is about 55 percent fat, so the pups quickly grow from approximately 75 pounds to 300 pounds. Females mate before they return to the ocean.

In addition to watching a fight between two male seals, some of the students were able to see a pup born just 30 minutes before they arrived. All the adult seals leave by mid-March. When pups are a month old, their original black fur molts and is replaced by a shiny new silver coat.

The students enjoyed observing the elephant seals on their guided walk conducted by a park docent. Afterward, they had the chance to step into the Visitor Center that features a natural history exhibit.

"Ano Nuevo is one of the few locations that have colonies of elephant seals accessible to the public," Ferreira said. Ferreira also expressed thanks to parents who made the field trips possible by volunteering to drive and serve as chaperones.

For more information on organizing a field trip, call California State Parks at 800-653-6995 or visit

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