A few miles north of San Simeon, on the central California coast, we stopped to visit the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, where we saw dozens of Northern Elephant Seals lounging on the beach.
At one time hunted to the brink of extinction for their rich blubber, there were fewer than 100 of these huge marine mammals when they became protected by federal law in the early 1900s. The seals have since made a terrific comeback, and today it is estimated that their population numbers 150,000. Every year they return to the same stretch of beach to calve, from about mid-December to mid-February, and they return again to molt in the early summer.
Juveniles and adult females come ashore first, sharing the beach with the weaned pups in early April, their number increasing to a maximum number of over 4000 on the two beaches adjacent to the parking area by early May. The males follow by early June.
While human beings shed hair and skin constantly, elephant seals go through a single annual molting, in which they lose an entire layer of epidermis, which is sloughed off with the hair intact. This process helps them conserve energy, and helps prevent the loss of body heat during their deep sea dives.
Elephant seals spend up to ten months a year at sea, migrating as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and south to Baja California. Their main food is squid, and they routinely dive as much as 5,000 feet below the surface, and stay submerged for anywhere from fifteen minutes to over an hour.
These are huge creatures; adult males can grow to over thirteen feet long and weigh up to 4,500 pounds. Females are much smaller, usually about ten feet long and growing to 1,500 pounds.
Elephant seals take their name from the enlarged proboscis males develop at sexual maturity, which occurs at about three to five years of age. This appendage can grow to two feet in length in a large bull.
While they are amazingly graceful in the water, on land, elephant seals are ungainly animals that propel themselves with their flippers and by throwing their bodies forward. We watched the animals as they lay atop one another in big piles, occasionally rising up to look around before dropping their heads back down again.
The males would bellow out challenges to others bulls, and every so often two would begin to spar, thumping their chests into each other, teeth flashing and mouths gaping red. But little damage is actually done, this is merely practice for the serious duels that will come during the winter breeding season, which can get very violent.
While they are fun to watch, and can look lovable, be warned that elephant seals can be dangerous. The viewing area is fenced in, both to protect the seals from human interference, and to protect careless humans who might get too close.
Years ago, before the area was fenced, we watched a couple of idiots who tried to set their toddler on top of a huge seal to get a photo. A ranger on the scene managed to stop them, and they received a citation, and no doubt, a stiff fine.
The Piedras Blancas rookery, on State Highway 1, is home to about 15,000 animals. The area is open for viewing every day of the year and there is no admission fee or reservation required. The parking lot would accommodate a small RV, but if there were many cars in the lot, a large RV would have difficulties.
Thought For The Day – If God wanted me to touch my toes, he would have put them on my knees.