Lessons from Año Nuevo State Park

Elephant Seal

On land, they’re loud (perhaps because they’re earless) and ungainly creatures. Their immense size and weight (bulls can grow up to 16 ft long and weigh up to 5,500 lbs–more than an SUV!) make them appear graceless.

Yet for Monica Hernandez’ Science 7 students, who visited the Año Nuevo State Park this week and observed northern elephant seals in their largest mainland breeding colony, there was more to them than blubber and barking.

Science 7 is learning about organisms through evolution, studying structure in order of complexity. They’re dissecting an organism a week; looking inside everything from flowers to frogs. A trip to Año Nuevo offered students an opportunity to observe and learn about mammals in an important life cycle.

Over the 3 mile path guided by park docents, students viewed hundreds of elephant seal pups on the beach alone, seemingly wondering what to do next. This is the season when cows have dutifully provided about 28 days of nourishment and left the pups to literally sink or swim. Cows don’t show cubs how to swim or hunt for food.

The beach was covered with whining and fighting pups, the rising message in each of them; hunger. Without a food source, or guidance on how to find food, pups face survival solo.

To students, the pups’ reality sounded harsh, but for northern elephant seals, that’s life. Students observed first hand how trial and error had positive outcomes. As pups fought on the beach, they develop skills to hunt. As pups fell into large puddles, and emerge after time, they learn about their ability to hold their breath (which they can do for up to 100 minutes!).

Ms. Hernandez points out, trial and error is a useful way to learn and is aligned with the scientific process. Failure, perseverance, resilience, and adaptation are important lessons for all mammals…including us humans. Here at Kirby, teachers strive daily to impart opportunities for students to continuously grown and develop these and other life skills.