Saturday, December 1, 2012

My Morning with the Elephant Seals


I heard them before I saw them.  Deep gutteral snorts.  It sounded like gears of semi-trucks grinding together.  Or croaking frogs amplified by ten.  I've never heard anything like it in all my life.  I walked to the south viewing platform and could not believe my eyes.  Only a few yards away I was witnessing the Battle of the Bulls.

I was at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, a few miles north of Hearst Castle on Highway 1.  In November, the males "haul-out" and vie for territory.  Their objective is to attract 25-50 females to a harem where they will protect them during the birthing season and then mate with them during estrus.  By the time the pregnant females arrive in December, the beach has been divided up among the males.  The alphas, the biggest of the bunch, don't have to work much.  The younger males know not to mess with such massive blobs of blubber.  The betas are the ones duking it out.  They are bellowing, snarling, hissing, and pounding their chests against each other.  The loser is forced into the water.  When he comes out, he will join the other bachelors at the far end of the beach.


It started to rain so I ran to my car, not wanting to ruin my camera.  I sat there for an entire hour, hoping, praying, the rain would stop.  When it did, I ran back out again, this time to the northern platform.  I was utterly mesmerized.  There were even more of these big guys over here.  The juveniles were piled one on top of the other, seemingly oblivous of the battles going on with their bigger brothers.

There were docents in blue jackets on this side.  They were there to answer questions, but also to track the action.   I vow to come back in January to see the pups.


This little guy didn't like me taking his picture.  I have a strong feeling he's going to grow up to be an alpha.

"I have to warn you," the docent advised.  "Seeing the births are amazing but it can be heartbreaking, as well.  Some pups are born stillborn, some get trampled or abandoned.  And there's nothing we can do about it."  He shrugged.  "It's nature."

All I could do was nod.  I was so stunned by it all.  When it started to rain again, I put my camera back in the car and ran back.  I watched the drama unfold in front of me, not caring that I was getting soaking wet.    It's nature. 

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