Located midway between San Francisco and Santa Cruz, along the rural San Mateo coast, Año Nuevo Island is a rocky islet teeming 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.
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
- 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.