Año Nuevo Island Reserve

Located midway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, along the rural San Mateo coast, Año Nuevo Island is a rocky islet teeming with with breeding seals, sea lions, and seabirds. Just two hundred years ago the island was connected to the mainland by a low peninsula. It served as a Coast Guard light station from 1872 to 1948. The fog signal house and abandoned former lightkeepers' residence can still be seen from shore. Today the island is part of 4,000-acre Año Nuevo State Reserve, which is owned and operated by California State Parks. Access to the island is limited to scientific researchers.

Año Nuevo Island is an important breeding ground for northern elephant seals, threatened Steller sea lions, and smaller numbers of harbor seals. It is a major haulout area for California sea lions. Threatened southern sea otters and great white sharks frequent the nearshore waters. The reserve supports a 40-year ongoing study of the growing elephant seal population, which has rebounded from near extinction a century ago. The study has expanded to investigate questions about the diving abilities of elephant seals and the physiology that supports dives to depths in excess of a kilometer for over an hour. The scientists also track the twice-yearly migrations of the seals which range as far as Alaska and Hawaii, and return to Año Nuevo to fast ashore for one to three months without food or water.

Weaned elephant seal pups. Photo by Kathleen M. Wong

The island also supports nesting colonies of sea birds, including Brandt's cormorants, western gulls, pelagic cormorants, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, Cassin's auklets, and black oystercatchers. There are very few places on earth with higher densities of large animals.

Researchers are accommodated in the historic buildings of the former Coast Guard light station. Due to the highly sensitive habitats and protected marine mammals and seabirds on the island, reserve use is restricted to scientific research. Researchers should contact the manager before submitting an application.

Public Tours
The California Department of Parks and Recreation coordinates limited guided tours of elephant seal breeding grounds on the mainland. For visitor information and tour reservations.

Año Nuevo State Reserve Website

Selected Research
  • Northern elephant seals: effects of low-frequency sound in the marine acoustic environment; geographic-reference behavior during migrations; buoyancy and swimming effort; predator-prey relationships with white sharks; and developmental physiology of pups during natural, prolonged fasts.
  • Population monitoring of Steller sea lions.
  • Conservation, demography, and food habits of rhinoceros auklets. A project enhances and restores the rhinoceros auklet population using nest boxes and ongoing monitoring.
Photo Gallery

Contact Information
For public tours, go to California State Parks
Patrick Robinson
Long Marine Laboratory
100 Shaffer Road Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Phone: 831-459-2691

Año Nuevo Island Reserve Website


San Mateo County, near the Santa Cruz County line; 1 km (0.62 mi.) offshore of Point Año Nuevo, the island is part of the Año Nuevo State Reserve, owned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
Google Map
Reserve boundary map

Historic buildings provide limited dormitory, kitchen, and field lab space; electricity provided by diesel generator; no running water; observation blinds serve major pinniped areas.

Plant List
Pinniped records continuous since 1967. Census data for all pinniped species present on the island (northern elephant seals, Steller's sea lions, California sea lions and harbor seals). Re-sighting and breeding records for individually tagged Northern elephant seals. Shorter term records for breeding seabirds (especially rhinoceros auklets) are maintained by PRBO Conservation Science and Oikonos. The National Marine Mammal Lab maintains re-sighting records for individually marked California sea lions present during the summer since 1996; extensive bibliography of published research.

Reserve manager on campus;
no on-site personnel.

10 hectares (25 acres), including the area of small rocky islets and coves immediately adjacent to the main island.

0 to 13 m (0 to 40 ft.)

Average Precipitation
50 cm (20 in.) per year

Average Temperatures
September maximum: 24ºC (76ºF)
January minimum: 4ºC (39ºF)
Annual mean: 13ºC (56ºF)

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