Winter brings elephant seals to the California coast — massive bellicose males and weary pregnant-plump females that deliver baggy newborns. Their annual ritual along remote beaches and among sand dunes starting in December includes battling, birthing, mating and, by April, molting.
We see a few individuals in Monterey Bay (Hopkins Marine Station Beach and recently Del Monte Beach), but don’t have a large colony. The closest is at Año Nuevo State Park about 60 miles (97 km) north of Monterey. For many people, viewing elephant seals while they’re visiting is a winter tradition. It’s quite a sight and these portraits of males are from my January trip to Año Nuevo.
Males in the colony are the most spectacular and diverse (sorry gals). Their noses, in particular, indicate their development from age 2 to 8 as they grow into the pendulous, inflatable proboscis that’s characteristic of a mature male. (They also make for great portraits.) A fully formed proboscis may overhang the mouth by 8 inches (20 cm) and helps a male intimidate other males (along with his size, posturing and Harley-Davidson motor sounds).
An adult male can grow to 13 feet (4 m) and weigh more than 5,000 pounds (2300 kg) — he’s a huge animal. While at the rookery, a dominant or alpha bull sleeps, defends his harem from other males and mates with the females that have settled near him. Beta bulls cruise the edges of harems for opportunities to mate with females before being run off by the dominant male.
When a beachmaster feels challenged by an interloper, he’ll rear up, throw back his head and bellow his warning. If he can’t scare off the other male, they may engage in a spectacular duel of chest thumping, neck wrestling and biting with long canine teeth. (Younger males fight for position in the hierarchy as well.)
A dominance battle might be bloody, but elephant seals are well-padded and injuries are usually minor. Most battles occur before or as females arrive to give birth. Winning males build and maintain harems and do most of the mating.
Note: For more about the colony, visit my portraits of females and pups or consult the references below.
The northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) was thought to be extinct in the late 1880s, hunted for the oil rendered from their copious blubber. The thousands that we see today were spawned by a small colony on Guadalupe Island off Baja Mexico in the early 1900s.
Today, the population from Mexico to Alaska is estimated to be about 175,000 individuals (although no one is really sure). That number may look good, but the population is vulnerable. Because they are all descendants of a few, their genetic variability is low, which makes the species less adaptable and more vulnerable to disease or environmental changes.
If you want to see for yourself, here’s a starter list of California spots (from south to north) where you can view elephant seals while they’re ashore. It’s notable that most sites are state or federal parks and protected areas, which we need to continue to support.
Channel Islands National Park & Marine Sanctuary
Piedras Blancas rookery and Friends of the Elephant Seal
Año Nuevo State Park
Farallon Islands (a National Marine Sanctuary and National Wildlife Refuge)
Point Reyes National Seashore