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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas, California

Northern elephant seals are impressive and fascinating marine mammals. A great place to observe and photograph elephant seals is at the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas, on the California coast, at the southern end of Big Sur. We spent two days in late January at Piedras Blancas to shoot these images.

Male (center) and female (foreground) Elephant Seals vocalizing

Here the elephant seals come to shore between December and February to give birth, nurse their young, and mate. An estimated 17,000 animals come to the rookery at Piedras Blancas during these months, although they are not all there at the same time. During the rest of the year they spend at least eight months at sea, never coming to land.

Female Elephant Seals and their pups on the beach with one male in the background 

Male elephant seals are much larger than females, weighing up to two and one-half tons and measuring up to 16 feet long, while females grow to 1,800 pounds and about 12 feet long. The males have a huge proboscis, longer in the older animals, that gives this animal its name. 

Note the long proboscis on the male Elephant Seal, and the scarring on his chest from many fights

The males will vocalize and posture to begin to establish dominance over an area of the beach. Sometimes they go farther with serious fighting, bumping their bodies together and biting each other’s chests. 

Two male Elephant Seals fighting

We saw the water go red with blood when these two fought. The older males develop a distinctive chest “shield” of very tough, calloused skin with extensive scarring from their many battles over territory and females. 

We saw blood in the water during the fight between these two male  Elephant Seals

While at sea, elephant seals dive for 20-30 minutes at a time, feeding on rays, small sharks, crabs, shellfish, octopus and squid. Dives of over 5,700 feet and more than two hours have been recorded.

Piedras Blancas lies within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which extends  along 276 miles of the California coast from north of the Golden Gate bridge to Cambria in southern San Luis Obispo County. Piedras Blancas is at the southern end of this area, on scenic California Highway One, 12 miles north of Cambria.

Elephant Seals on the beach at Piedras Blancas

At Piedras Blancas, an accessible boardwalk and trail extend about a half mile on either side of a large parking lot, immediately overlooking the beach and the elephant seal rookery. Parking is free. It is a wonderful place to view or photograph these huge animals at fairly close range.

Young male Elephant Seal at surf's edge

A not-for-profit organization, Friends of the Elephant Seal, partners with California State Parks and the Coastal Conservancy, and provides extensive information about the elephant seals on their website, as well as maintaining a webcam of the rookery. Volunteers from Friends of the Elephant Seal donate many hours of their time to answer  questions by visitors to the rookery.

Amorous male Elephant Seal approaches a female

The first elephant seal males arrive in December. Females begin to give birth in late December but most of the births are in January. They nurse their pups for four to five weeks, then mate and head back out to sea. 

Elephant seal pup nursing in the rookery at Piedras Blancas

There was much vocalizing throughout the rookery which is a very loud place. The booming sounds of the big males were impressive. The Friends of the Elephant Seal Newsletter says the bellow of a big male “sounds like a Harley revving up in a gym,” and we thought that was a great description. 

Female Elephant Seals vocalizing

When one huge beachmaster, clearly the dominant male on that part of the beach, started booming in this wayPark, we watched several other big males literally back off away from him. Even the females cleared out of his way. But he mated with the one(s) he wanted to mate with.

Male Elephant Seal

Late January seemed to be a perfect time to view all of this activity: births, nursing pups, males still fighting for territory on the beach, and mating. The rookery was full of activity. 

This newborn Elephant Seal pup still has the umbilical cord attached

In two mornings, we watched three births of elephant seal pups, and volunteers from Friends of the Elephant Seal told us there had been several other births those days. We watched females nurse their young, and males fight for territory and breeding rights. 

Female Elephant Seals are very protective of their pups

We learned that a good way to identify that there had just been a birth, was when a couple of hundred gulls flocked to a particular area of the beach. The gulls fought over the blood- and nutrient-rich afterbirth - also nature’s way of cleaning up the beach.