A VISIT WITH THE ELEPHANT SEALS IN CENTRAL CALIFORNIA
Take a drive up the winding roads of California’s Highway 1 and you will find some of nature’s most magnificent works of art— white stone beaches, expansive bluffs, twisted cypress trees, jade cliffs, and a gradient of beautiful ocean blues. You’ll also have an opportunity to meet one of the ocean’s most comical looking pinnopeds— the northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris). Four miles past the acclaimed Hearst Castle, in an area known as Piedras Blancas (White Rocks), an elephant seal rookery buzzes with activity.
Rookeries act as the breeding, birthing, and nursing grounds for elephant seals in each stage of their lives. Though most rookeries are located on islands throughout Southern California and Baja, Mexico, this six-mile stretch of coastline hosts an impressive population of seals that is close enough for visitors to observe. In fact, it is the only elephant seal rookery in the world that is easily accessible, free, and open to the public every day! Depending on the time of year, visitors can encounter males battling for a prized Alpha position, females giving birth, or mating season in full swing.
Recently, a road trip from Los Angeles to Big Sur led us in the direction of the famed elephant seal vista and we couldn’t help but pull off for a visit. Though the sun was shining on this sunny September afternoon, I could feel a dip in temperature the moment we stepped out of the car. Braving windy conditions, we made our way to the viewing deck and spotted an alcove filled with juvenile males whose moniker trunk-like noses were just the budding beginnings of their impressive future selves. Elephant seals are comical. If not in appearance, then certainly in the way they use their large flippers to fling piles of sand over their massive bodies or in the honking sounds they make while wriggling about the shore. Though the months of August and September are known as the period with the lowest amount of seal activity, we spotted at least two-hundred young seals either tossing sand across their bodies, snoozing on the sand, or hurling themselves across a pile of sleeping seals.
If you’re planning a visit, make sure to bring a jacket because the winds on top of the bluff are fierce and without the right clothing, it might be difficult to spend too much time basking in the hilarity and majesty of these impressive marine mammals.
A Baby Boom at Piedras Blancas
In the course of a year, over 25,000 seals will molt (shed their fur), mate, or give birth on the shores of Piedras Blancas. However, this area has not always been the chosen mating grounds of these wide-eyed pinnipeds. After being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1800’s, Mexico declared protected status for the northern elephant in 1922. Since then, the elephant seal population has expanded from just 50 seals to hundreds of thousands along the coast of California. Historically, the rehabilitated populations have preferred the warmer waters of the Channel Islands over the Central and Northern California coastlines, but over the past three decades, Piedras Blancas has seen a huge boom in elephant seal babies. In 1992, a single elephant seal pup was born on the stretch of land between Piedras Blancas and Monterey. This year, over 5,800 seals were birthed on these shores. That’s a HUGE difference!
As the rookery exploded in size, a local grassroots group, Friends of the Elephant Seal, was formed. Since it’s inception, docents have volunteered daily to offer advice to visitors about the seals’ life cycle, their habits, and habitat, with the goal of building greater awareness and support for the species’ continued presence on the central coast.
A Seal’s Schedule
Sometime between late November and early December adult male elephant seals begin to arrive on the shores. After spending eight months at sea, these two-ton marine mammals are more than a little cantankerous. Each year, the strongest males in the clan helicopter their phallic noses in the air to signal an oncoming fight for dominance. A battle ensues and the winner takes all, ruling the surrounding portion of the beach and claiming females during mating season. Males are not the only seals with attitudes. Scientists have discovered that if a female is being accosted by an unwanted suitor, she’ll begin flipping sand in his face until he gets the hint.
In the weeks before Christmas, pregnant female seals make their way to shore, with new arrivals streaming in through the first part of February. Once ashore, the females form harems around the recently-throned alpha males to prepare for the mating season. There is little time for rest and relaxation when you are a female elephant seal. Most females give birth within a week of their arrival, welcoming pups that weigh around 70-80 pounds at birth. Right away the pups begin feeding and since both males and females fast during their time on land, these nursing mothers will lose nearly half of their body weight over a four-week period of time. While these fasting moms get slim, their pups quadruple in size! After a brief, month-long nursing period, mating begins and though female seals are pregnant when they leave the beach in February, their fertilized eggs are not implanted until after they have finished molting in May.
For an elephant seal, life in the sea is a stark contrast to life on land. Female elephant seals spend ten months out of the year at sea, while their male counterparts spend just eight. During this time, the seals are constantly diving and foraging for food— pretty understandable when you consider that they fast the entire time they are on land!
Plan Your Visit
February is a very exciting month to visit the elephant seals because you can witness birthing, weaning, and mating simultaneously. At this time, the beach is typically crowded with dominant bulls guarding their harems of females and pups, so there’s a ton of activity to catch. If you’re interested in catching a glimpse of these comical creatures, find the vista turnout just 5 miles north of the San Simeon exit on Route 1. The viewing areas are open every day of the year, wheelchair accessible, and free. No reservations required.
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