Also seen in Journal Plus, March 2015
Story and Photos by
The wild waves of winter have calmed. The northern elephant seal adults have returned to the Pacific Ocean to feed after a long winter of females birthing 60-80 pound babies; and the massive males fiercely battling for dominance and territory.
It’s March and the rookery clowns own the beach. The clowns, thousands of weaned northern elephant seal pups, leave the safety of bluff-side weaner pods that they adopted when their mothers abandoned them four to five weeks after giving each one birth during the winter months. Most are in fine, fat shape. And it is time for these blubbery kids to teach themselves how to swim, dive and hunt.
These 300-pound weaners kalump their roly-poly bodies to the tide pools, test the waters, squeal and cavort in the rocky shoreline of Piedras Blancas near San Simeon. It’s one of the noisiest and most entertaining seasons of the northern elephant seal. It’s also not the best known season. Most visitors want to watch the massive males battle it out while female seals birth their single pups on the beach from about mid-December through mid-February.
Depending on the successful births and survival of the elephant seal pups during the winter months, you can observe maybe over 4,000 of these weaners discover their natural buoyancy. I promise a few good chuckles at their surprised faces when an unexpected wave crashes the party.
Maybe it’s their big and round soulful eyes, or their pink mouths, or even the black whiskers that sprout from their lips and brows like black vinyl, that make these elephant seals-in-training pure entertainment.
Rookery visitors usually gasp, when I explain how pregnant females arrive on the beach after a long journey from the north-eastern Pacific Ocean, give birth to their pup, nurse it so that that it gains about 10-pounds a day (while the mother looses about 20-pounds a day), and after this four-week period, she pushes her pup aside and forces its weaning. She does this because she comes back into estrus and will be bred by the two-ton alpha male of her harem. After about five breeding days she leaves her pup behind and returns to her northern-eastern Pacific foraging waters. Yes, her pup might wail as she dives into the waves, but it has transformed from an adorable, loose-skinned, black furred newborn into a big fat tick-like beast of about 300 pounds. All it has to do is rest in a weaner pod until March arrives. The parent-free weaners take stage center, in what we docents often call a nursery school where they discover swimming fun. Daily, their bodies change into muscular, silver coated beauties.
Piedras Blancas is a perfect environment for these pinnipeds. From the protective bluffs to the deep ocean canyons and arroyos, elephant seal weaners have an extraordinary training ground before they depart their birthplace sometime near April. Each silver coated weaner leaves on its own instinct. Alone, it explores the sea for food and survival for the next six months of so. About sixty-percent of each year’s class of clowns will survive this maiden voyage before they return to their place of birth to rest on the sand during late summer/early fall.
To learn more about northern elephant seals, visit, http://www.elephantseals.org