March 21, 2014
Ano Nuevo State Reserve, CA
Elephant Seal Breeding Site
Ano Nuevo State Reserve is only 40 minutes away, so this week I asked myself: why on earth don’t I go there more often? The last time was several years ago. I suppose I’ve been deterred by the fee they charge and the need to sign-up ahead of time (via ReserveAmerica) for a seal walk. But with renewed enthusiasm I made a commitment to visit at least several times a year. I’ve already missed the prime elephant seal watching season in January. At that time, the most seals are present and they are most active. Males, females, pups, births, mating, fighting. Conspicuously encumbered by my two cameras and several lenses, the docent let me know that there were special tours for photographers in January. Next year, I hope.
It took a leisurely hour to walk from the nature center to where the elephant seals are hauled out on the sand. Halfway there, our group met a park ranger and docent at the “staging area”. A table was set out with skulls from local marine mammals showing their relative sizes. On the ground was an enormous partially petrified skull of an ancient blue whale. This bone was unearthed recently on a beach nearby after a storm. The docent shared natural and human history of the area as we slowly made our way through the dunes to the beach.
Spread across the sand like giant slugs were a variety of elephant seals: adult males, sub-adult males, females, pups, weaners. Usually listless, an occasional seal would galumph strenuously toward a preferred spot. If it was a large male on the move, the other smaller seals would scurry out of its way. Propelling itself forward in great lunges using it’s front flippers, the seals stopped frequently, seemingly exhausted, before attempting to move again. The primary other seal activity was flipping plumes of sand into the air to cover their bodies in a layer of protection from heat and sunburn.
Grunts, groans, snorts, and occasional screeching rose above the rhythmic surf sound. We watched a male seal annoying a female while she flipped seaweed into his face in response. He eventually let her be. Some pups were still with their mothers. But most were now silver-toned “weaners”: having finished weaning, their mothers were gone or disinterested in them. These pups were on their own although they had yet to swim or hunt food for the first time.
Elephant seals are deep-sea feeders and do not eat during their several month stay here in winter. Consequently, they had lost much of their bulk since first arriving in December and January. Even so, they were huge. The males weigh in at 5000 pounds while the females are about 1200. During nursing, the females lose about 10 pounds a day while their pups eagerly gain those 10 pounds daily from the fat-rich milk, going from 70 pounds at birth to over 200 in a few weeks.
These marine mammals are called elephant seals because of their great size and because the adult males sport a trunk-like proboscis. Spending 80% of their life swimming the Pacific, each year they return to the same breeding grounds in winter. These seals can dive down thousands of feet and can spend nearly two hours underwater without breathing. Hunted to near extinction for their blubber, by 1892 there were only 50-100 northern elephant seals left. The population is now up to about 160,000.
The browns, tans, and grays of the seals matched the shades of the sandy shore. They looked like ripples on the beach, rows of bloated sausages strewn about, mounds of sand rolled into mammalian stogies. Some relaxed on seaweed beds, others reclined in shallow waters. A few males had minor squabbles. Unlike sea lions who can sit up on their hind appendages, elephant seals can only lie flat and must scoot along awkwardly to get anywhere. However, when motivated, they can move quickly for short distances – human observers were kept 25 feet away. The seals, in general, ignored us, although the ones nearest us could occasionally be seen meeting our gaze.