Of California Storms and Elephant Seals
Many parts of the highway I traveled on my December trip along the West Coast have been closed due to the recent rains, flooding and rock slides occurring the past couple of weeks.
One closed section I just learned about Monday especially concerned me and what it meant for a large group of new-found friends I met along the way.
If you follow me on Instagram (and I’m always happy if you do), you met them too. They’re the Point Piedras Blancas elephant seals.
Point Piedras Blancas is along California’s Highway 1, right on the Pacific Ocean, 7.7 miles north of San Simeon. San Simeon may ring a bell, that’s where you’ll also find Hearst Castle.
The section of highway where the elephant seal viewing area is located has been closed. Some parts of Highway 1 have been completely washed away.
The reason this is concerning for the elephant seals is this time of year they are essentially beached.
January is the peak birthing time for female elephant seals. During the five weeks the pup is nursing with their mother they don’t enter the water. They stay on the beach.
It would be difficult if not impossible for the pups to survive the water soon after birth. During those first five weeks they grow from just 70 pounds to 300.
Meanwhile, the mother, who has been gaining weight just for this, kind of like bears preparing for hibernation, will lose roughly 40 percent of her body weight.
Even when the pup is finished weaning it still does not enter the water. It will remain on the beach for another two to three months, living off the blubber it gained being nursed by its mother.
It’s easy to understand then, why the current weather can be so threatening. The pups cuddle closely to their mothers for protection but tremendously high tides can separate them, pulling the pups into the water.
And, as large as these animals are and with a body made for swimming, it is difficult for them to move on the beach.
Sidenote time: In the fifth and final week of nursing the mother enters estrus, her time of fertility. She will mate with a male, probably more than once, and then returns to the sea. They remain at sea until April or May when they come back to the beach to begin molting.
I’ve searched for information on how they are doing since the storms came through and haven’t found a great deal.
The Friends of the Elephant Seal organization is a very active group supporting preservation of the seals. The live beach cams normally up and running on their website are currently out of commission due to the storms.
Their Facebook page reports 15 to 20-feet-high waves hit the beach on January 5. They have some cute photos of pups they have found safe but few details about how the storms have affected them as a whole.
There is video from the previous day showing waves rolling over them, you can hear the mothers and pups calling to each other.
This time of year, with the newborn pups, there can be a thousand or more elephant seals sunning themselves along the beach.
There was once thousands of elephant seals spreading up and down the California coast and into Mexico.
That was before they were nearly hunted to extinction in the early to mid-1800s. In fact, they were believed to be extinct before a Smithsonian Institution expedition found eight of them in 1892 near Baja, and then killed seven of them.
Fortunately enough elephant seals managed to survive undetected that, after laws were created in 1922 making it illegal to kill or capture them, their population was able to grow once again. So much so the current population is believed to be more than 150,000.
The Point Piedras Blancas viewing area is a great spot for seeing them close up and it’s free of charge. There is a long boardwalk along the beach, just a few feet above where the elephant seals are hanging out.
The boardwalk is an ideal spot. It’s not a good idea to get too close to elephant seals, especially the males who might think you’re invading their territory. Those guys grow to 16-feet in length and 5,000 pounds!
There’s also volunteers from Friends of the Elephant Seal on hand to answer any questions. These folks are very knowledgeable and dedicated to the cause.
I spent a good deal of time walking up and down, just taking it in. The most fun came from watching a male slowly work his way out into the water and then begin to issue his mating call. It sounds a bit like a bullfrog, the size of an SUV.
The mating call is as much for the females as it is for the other males. They use it to try to stake their territory. Later, when the mating season is really in full swing next month, there can be some ferocious fights between the male for mating rights.
The viewing area is open year-round, though the number of elephant seals will vary depending on the time of year. The Friends’ website has a really good page detailing their patterns by month. Even if you’re not planning a visit, it’s a great place to learn more about them.
If you are visiting and want more information, make a stop at the Friends of the Elephant Seal Visitor Center in San Simeon. I’m not kidding when I say these people know their stuff, you’ll end up knowing more about elephant seals than you thought possible, and that’s a good thing.
Last thing, keep some positive thoughts going for the elephant seals. It sounds like the storms have let up so that’s good news.
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