Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Northern Elephant Seals of Piedras Blancas

I had visited my aunt and uncle in their home in Cambria a couple of times in the 1980s and I had never heard of the Elephant Seals. So I was quite surprised when my cousins mentioned the rookery just a short distance from San Simeon, and Hearst. Now I would have remembered Elephant Seals from a previous trip so I thought something funny was going on.

Well it all started in the fall of 1990, long after my last visit, when fewer than 2 dozen elephant seals showed up in the small cove just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. The spring of 1991 saw about 400 elephant seals coming to molt. January 1992 saw the first pups being born which marked the beginning of an elephant seal population explosion. 1993 about 50 pups were born, 1995 600 pups were born, 1996 almost 1000 were born. Now the rookery is home to about 15,000 elephant seals.

Saying the rookery is home to about 15,000 is a bit misleading since the elephant seals spend the vast majority of their time in the open ocean, from eight to ten months of the year.

From what I understand I visited rather early in the birthing/molting/breeding season as the older males, adults and sub-adults were arriving. During this time there are lots of challenges for prime territory. There wasn't a time when I didn't see at least one but more like a couple pairs of seals challenging each other. It was a busy place.

Pregnant females also arrive and begin giving birth. Birthing peaks in mid-January with about two births an hour by the public viewing area right off Highway 1.

These seals are absolutely huge. At birth they weigh about 70 lbs and gain weight quickly to about 300 lbs by 4 weeks of age. Females grow to 9-12 feet and weigh between 900-1800 pounds. Males grow to 14-16 feet long and weigh in at 3000-5000 pounds, or more.

They look like blobs of blubber laying on the beach but when they want to move they can do so very quickly. One thing I found quite humorous was watching the groups of them lying together. When one seal would move on one side of the group the blubber would shake almost across the whole group so another seal 5 over would also move.

I would have loved to spend more time there and will definitely return.


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