ANO NUEVO NATURE PRESERVE, Calif. — I had heard about the elephant seals for years, but never thought I'd get a chance to see them. The sign on California's coastal highway always seems to read "Seal Walks Full."

For three months each year, 50,000 humans and thousands of seals come face to face on the dunes at Ano Nuevo, a spit of land 55 miles south of San Francisco. It is one of only a handful of places where the once-rare species hauls out of the sea.

As it turns out, getting a spot on one of the tours isn't so difficult after all — with a quick Internet search and a phone call, I was able to get reservations the peak of the season, just a month in advance.

The secret, of course, was settling for a weekday — my wife, older son and nephew would have to play hooky with me. But it was more than worth it.

The preserve is a pleasant and very scenic one-hour drive south of San Francisco along coastal Highway 1. Since no food is allowed during the 3-mile hike through the dunes, we got sandwiches at San Benito House in Half Moon Bay, one of our favorite haunts, and ate them in the car.

Past fields of artichokes and flowers and stunning cliffside views of the Pacific, we pulled in to a parking lot full of buses on school field trips, briefly panicking that tourists would outnumber the seals.

But this preserve seems quite well managed — thanks to 230 volunteer naturalists who carefully lead a dozen people at a time over the dunes and between packs of seals, we humans hardly noticed each other as we joined their awesome pinniped party.

As we learned from our docent, elephant seals are a solitary species, roaming thousands of miles across the Pacific and returning to the same stretch of sand twice a year.

At sea, they're bottom feeders, diving for as long as an hour to catch the 100 pounds of fish they need each day. On the beach, the adults spend weeks without eating or drinking.

What they lack in food they make up in drama — a grunting, groaning, roiling mass of seal flesh that thrives in complete indifference to the human observers walking as close as 25 feet away.

Bull seals weighing up to two tons each establish harems, then shove them aside to scare away other males in bloody, chest-biting fights. Females give birth and spend just 28 days giving milk and nurturing their pups, which quadruple in size, growing to as much as 300 pounds. Then they abandon their young and give in to the males before returning to the sea.

Once we got closer, we could see bleating newborns meeting their mothers nose-to-nose. Such encounters help females identify their young among all the other seals.

The Ano Nuevo colony has grown to about 6,000 seals, according to the yearly census, and it's the only place along the California coast where people can walk among them in naturalist-guided tours. Another colony near San Luis Obispo, which can be viewed from a blufftop ridge, has grown from several seals in 1990 to more than 7,000 today.

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Demand for the tours at Ano Nuevo is so great from Dec. 15-March 31 that weekend slots sell out eight weeks in advance, hours after they become available.

But amazing seal encounters can be had year round. From April through November, visitors can hike out on their own after picking up a free permit at the entrance to the preserve.

From late March to May, hundreds of weaned pups remain behind, learning to swim in the tide pools before dashing past hungry sharks to the open ocean. In May and June, females return to molt, followed by the males in July and August. September through November is when the juvenile bulls hit the beach to see who's boss.

The preserve's natural history museum also is worth lingering in. There's a monitor showing real-time television images of seals lounging on Ano Nuevo island, a former lighthouse station just offshore that is part of the preserve. Thanks to the solar-powered SealCam, anyone with a computer can get the same seal fix online, at www.anonuevo.org.

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