Wildlife Photo Safari Adventure On The Beautiful California Coast

Photography and Text by Chuck Place

The air was filled with burping sounds and rather high-pitched screams, punctuated occasionally with deep booming notes that you could actually feel in your bones. I was standing on an elevated boardwalk above the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony where mothers and pups were calling to each other and huge bull elephant seals were challenging each other with deep belching notes that seemed to come from the bottom of a well. It was sunrise in late February and the beach looked like total chaos, covered with hundreds of elephant seals. This was going to be good.

Male elephant seals fight for dominance

Male elephant seals fight over dominance, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony, near San Simeon, California

I had packed all my main wildlife equipment with a fast 300 lens on one body and a 80-200mm zoom on another. I knew access was restricted at Piedras Blancas and I wanted to be able to reach out and fill the frame with these amazing creatures.

Elephant seals mating

Elephant seals preparing to mate, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony, near San Simeon, California

I left home quite early so that I would arrive just before sunrise. Elephant seals spend much of the year in cold open ocean waters and sport a thick layer of blubber to keep them warm. Hauling out on a beach, even during February’s cool temperatures, elephant seals can quickly overheat if they are too active. If you want interesting images, all the action is early and late. Most of the day elephant seals sleep soundly looking like large, smooth boulders on the beach.

Male elephant seal portrait

Portrait of a male elephant seal announcing his territorry, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony, near San Simeon, California.

As I hauled my heavy lenses out onto the boardwalk, I quickly realized how redundant the 300mm lens was going to be. If I accidently dropped a lens cap off the boardwalk, it would bounce off the nose of an elephant seal. They were packed together all over the beach and for the most part, ignored people walking around above them.

Elephant seal sleeping

Female elephant seal nudges a sleeping male, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony, near San Simeon, California

Photographing this chaos could be tricky. Coming from an editorial background, I constantly think in terms of a complete magazine article. What range of images would an art director or photo editor need to cover this subject properly? Establishing beach shots? Of course. Interactions, portraits, action shots and tourists? Yes, yes, yes and yes.

Female elephant seals

Female and young male elephant seals sleeping on the beach, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, San Simeon, California

Sunlight began to crest the sand dunes lining the beach, giving me a beautiful edge lighting that helped separate the sand-colored seals from the sandy beach. A battle between two males developed right in front of me on the edge of the surf. I thanked the technology gods for motor drives as I burned through dozens of frames, knowing that at least some of them would capture peak action. Large males posed for portraits after emerging from the sea while young females stacked up like piles of driftwood. A dominant male, known as a beachmaster, reared up a ways down the beach, announcing his territory and his ladies, allowing me to finally use the 300mm lens!

Beachmaster elephant seal

Male elephant seal announces his territorry, Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony, near San Simeon, California

Within two hours, everything was settling down. The sun got stronger, seals were throwing sand over themselves to cool down and tourists began to arrive. One last parting image of tourists viewing the napping seals from the boardwalk completed my coverage and I was off to find breakfast in nearby Cambria.

Tourists view elephant seals.

Tourists photograph the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony, near San Simeon, California.

Few wildlife spectacles in the U.S. pack so much action into such a short period of time. This is a uniquely California event with easy access and lots of subjects to photograph. February is the month and early morning is the time to shoot action. If you have a long lens, take it with you. You may not need it, but it’s great to have when action pops up a distance down the beach. Luck does favor the prepared!

Equipment List:

Canon EOS 5D Mk III Bodies

Canon EF 80-20mm Zoom f2.8 Lens

Canon EF 300mm f2.8 Lens

Manfrotto 3221 Tripod

Arca Swiss Monoball Head