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 females and pups are from my January trip to Año Nuevo.
The females usually arrive at the rookery later than the males, often after or while bulls are establishing beachheads. In the colony, females aren’t as showy as the males (sorry gals), but they’re more numerous and noticeably full-figured. An adult female grows to about 10 feet (3.1 m) on average and may weigh nearly 2,000 pounds (900 kg). They need to be that big because they won’t eat anything while on the beach. Early arrivers try to pick a spot near the alpha male, close to his inner circle. This offers some protection from harassment by other males and battles at the edge of the colony.
Within days of arrival a pregnant female gives birth to a small, dark pup (newborns appear to be wearing suits three sizes too large). The pup quickly fills out by nursing on mom’s rich milk and within weeks fattens from a weight of about 75 pounds (34 kg) to nearly 300 pounds (136 kg).
Females don’t fight as violently as the males, but they do quarrel. The colony is crowded and large adults can easily crush a pup. Females battle for prime real estate in the harem and to maintain space between their young ones and other adults.
While a pup is growing, its mother may mate several times (those interactions are another story). Then, at about 4 weeks, she abandons her rotund “weaner” (if all went well) and returns to the sea. The pup remains for a while until it molts and learns to swim.
Note: For more about the colony, visit my portraits of males or consult the references below.
There’s a considerable amount of scientific research being conducted on elephant seals (in these photos you’ll see numbers on some animals and electronic devices epoxied to the fur, which fall off during the annual molt).
Scientists have learned that the seals’ open-ocean lives are amazing. They travel throughout most of the northeast Pacific Ocean in search of fishes and squid and the current diving record is 5,788 feet (1754 m) — more than a mile. Elephant seals are definitely not the slugs they appear to be on the beach.
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. The current 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