There’s nothing like finding a big group of elephant seals. The mammals are simply amazing to watch no matter what they are doing. They are fascinating creatures whether they’re sleeping, fighting, flipping sand up on their bodies to cool off, moving their huge blubbery bodies on shore, or nursing their pups. The herd is a potpourri of sights and sounds. We visited in late December and saw pregnant cows, cows with newborn pups, and bulls patrolling the beach, proclaiming dominance with booming threats and nips at each other.
But the most wonderful thing about the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas is that they are easy to view. At Año Nuevo State Park north of Santa Cruz, there’s a fee to see the elephant seals and you must go with a guide, but at Piedras Blancas, you just drive up in your RV and you’re there.
The elephant seal viewing area has signs and is easy to find. A boardwalk parallels the beach and makes viewing safe and easy. And if you need more information about the elephant seals, look for the docents in blue jackets. These volunteers are members of the Friends of the Elephant Seals, based in San Simeon, and they are there to watch the seals and answer your questions.
Down from Alaska
Elephant seals begin arriving on the beach in November. Swimming in from the cold waters of Alaska, where they spend the summer feeding on squid, fish, and octopus, the enormous males are the first to come on shore, establishing territories.
Adult male elephant seals are humongous slug-like creatures with blubbery bodies, rough crusty necks, and floppy noses that give them their name. They move awkwardly on the beach, laboring to reach their place on the sand, and then crumpling like deflated 14- to 16-foot-long blimps. Although it may appear that a human could outrun a galloping elephant seal, beware. Elephant seals can move surprisingly fast. Be sure to keep your distance!
Rival males fight often, thus their rough crusty necks. But their calloused necks are a good thing, serving as protective shields. Watch the beach and you’ll see males coming to terms with each other. First, they make loud, threatening sounds that are hard to describe. Some say it’s like someone banging on a pipe or revving up a motor. If vocalizing doesn’t work, the male rivals will raise the front half of their bodies off the sand, butting chests and biting each other on the neck and face, oftentimes drawing blood.
The big males fast while they are on the beach, so that means they are without food from November through February. Weighing as much as 5,000 pounds in November, the males may lose as much as 40 percent of their weight by February.
Females, which are much smaller than the males, weigh from 900 to 1,800 pounds, and are 9 to 12 feet long. As the females come on shore the dominant males assemble harems of 30 to 40 females and wait for their chance to breed. In the meantime, there is plenty to do as younger males are always trying to take a harem of their own.
The females arrive after an equally long migration, ready to fast, give birth, nurse their baby, and mate. Raising a pup is hard work. After the pup, which weighs from 60 to 80 pounds and is about three feet long, is born, the mother vocalizes, bonding her voice with that of her pup. It’s the best way to find each other once the beach is crowded with other elephant seals. She nurses the pup for a month, supplying milk with a 50 percent fat content, allowing the calf to gain an average of 10 pounds a day. The pup is weaned in four weeks and may weigh 300 pounds when its mother leaves it. The cows then head back to Alaska to feed, leaving their pups on the beach. They have to learn to swim and eat on their own.
Elephant seals lead a solitary existence at sea. Females spend about 10 months at sea, with about five weeks on land during the birth and breeding season and another three or four weeks during the spring molt. Males are at sea about eight months a year.
Piedras Blancas is a relatively new breeding and calving site. Last winter, 3,500 pups were born and approximately 12,000 elephant seals spent time on shore. Although the site near Piedras Blancas has been set aside for watching elephant seals, you’ll see the seals hauled out along a 20-mile stretch of beach from Cambria to Piedras Blancas.
Visit as we did and you’ll no doubt feel as though you are a part of the same National Geographic program.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado