We headed north out of the traffic cluster that is LA having attended an October wedding in the City of Angels. Not our idea of a place to hang out, so having never visited the central California coast this seemed to be a good opportunity to see and photograph some of the wildlife found between Los Angeles and San Francisco. After some research we knew there would be opportunities to see and hopefully photograph the monarch butterflies gathered for the winter at Pismo Beach. We also knew that sea otters were common at Morro Bay and from there north of Cambria there would be elephant seals.
There is none of the edgeless blue sky of the mountains or desert, fog lays gray like a blanket off the coast. Air thick with haze after the fog rolled out to sea is also filled with sound, gulls of course, but sharp barking, groaning growls and a curious glunk, glunk, glunk, glunk, guttural with a vaguely heavy metallic undertone. Here on this wide sandy beach, virtually every square foot covered with life is one of the great wildlife spectacles in North America.
The shore is carpeted with northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris, a little smaller than their southern cousins and we are very lucky to see them at all. Back in the latter 1800s these seals were virtually wiped out (familiar theme here…think bison, wolves, etc.) by sealers and whalers. A few survived off the coast of Baja California, 20 to possibly 100 individuals and in 1922 were protected by the Mexican Government. We now have a population possibly near 200,000 and while this seems to be an impressive number they are given sanctuary under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A large number yes, but seeing them is no less a miracle. Coming from such a miniscule gene pool they are one disease away from having their numbers riddled with emptiness. Barring tragedy, time may put this to right. It is illegal to harass or injure them.
What we found in October were the males coming to the beaches near Piedras Blancas for the fall haul-out. The big guys (beachmasters) show up later in November. When I say big guys I mean seriously large animals. Mature males weigh in at 3,000 to 5,000+ pounds and are 14 to 16 feet long. The glunk, glunk sound mentioned before is the signature call of the bull…part territorial warning, part threat display and all strange. The ladies are less massive, 9 to 12 feet long and weigh in at 900 to 1800 pounds. The immature males that arrive ahead of the adult bulls put on quite a show, they spend a lot of time sparring and testing each other on the beach and in the surf.
The viewing of these beasts is as easy as wildlife watching can be. The Piedras Blancas viewing area has a big parking lot right off of Highway 1 north of Cambria. A board walk parallels the beach for hundreds of yards and an easy trail continues to a smaller parking lot to the north. And yeah, it gets crowded on weekends, so best to visit on a week day if possible. You can escape to some extent by walking along the path to the north.
In January we were back to see what happens when the beachmasters show up, the fights for territory and females giving birth. The single pup is 60-80 pounds at birth and grows fast, it is weaned after a month and will weigh 250-300 pounds.
Elephant seal cows have the richest milk of any mammal on the planet, but produce only enough for one pup. After weaning, the pups stay on the beach for 2 1/2 months, teaching themselves to swim and dive before they head out to sea. Maybe you find this bull and cow creating a “pup” thing a little strange, I’ve never heard of a bull and cow producing a “pup”, this is apparently a holdover from the whaling days. Not an easy life, only 37% of pups make it to one year, only 16% make it to the age of 4.
Elephant seals spend most of their lives at sea, the females hunting squid, the males feed on small sharks, rays and hagfish to a max depth of 5,000 feet. Trying to keep cool while on land is a challenge for these huge animals, designed to stay warm in cold Pacific waters. The most obvious way they try to protect themselves from the sun is by flipping sand over their backs. The pups seemingly start flipping sand not long after birth.
All this takes place from October into February, the pregnant cows arrive mid-December and most births take place in the later part of January. Most mating takes place around Valentine’s Day, go figure.
All of these animals are fasting the entire time they are on the beach. Conserving energy is paramount for them so they don’t move unless they have to. The females fast for about a month or so, for the males fasting lasts for about three months. Friends of the Elephant Seal, a non-profit that has volunteers at the viewing area to answer questions and enhance a visitor’s experience through education. Check them out online at elephantseal.org. They also have a web cam on the beach so you can see a slice of what’s going on with the seals.
There are other areas to view elephant seals on the California coast but this area near San Simeon is as good as it gets. Just spend some time. You’ll be rewarded with a window into the lives of these animals, so different from us and yet so much the same.