It was a chilly but sunny day last week when we had the fortune of spending time with a colony of elephant seals.
There are only about a dozen spots in the world where northern elephant seals breed, and Point Reyes in Northern California is one of them.
They spend most of their lives at sea, only coming to land for breeding.
At Point Reyes, the bulls (males) arrive in December and the cows (females) arrive in January.
The pups had recently been born and there was a bonanza of excitement on the day we visited, with this colony numbering over 120 individuals spread out across the short beach.
There were mostly mothers and pups, and a couple dozen bulls made their presence known.
There were orange barricades up, keeping people at a distance to protect the seals; and this sign, below, with the seal count. We were on the southwest side of Drakes Beach at the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center.
Always with elephant seals, the first thing you are instantly aware of is their gargantuan size. The bulls are noticeably larger, but the cows are also formidably large.
Quick Facts from National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration:
Weight: 1,300 – 4,400 pounds (590-1,996 kg)
Length: 10-13 feet (3-4 m)
Adult male elephant seals have a large inflatable nose, or proboscis, that overhangs the lower lip resembling an elephant trunk, thus its name. The proboscis is his tool for amplifying sounds in female competitions.
Mirounga angustirostris nearly went extinct in the late 1800s from over-harvesting. Their blubber is oil-rich. They had been absent from Point Reyes for more than 150 years; then in the 1970s elephant seals returned to the Point Reyes beaches, and in 1981 a breeding pair was discovered.
They are protected now and the California population is continuing to grow at around 6% per year.
As of last week, the mothers were still nursing and the pups, in that newborn way, were demanding, screaming.
You can see in the two photos below they are dark black and wrinkled, having been recently born.
This pup, below front, has learned how to sit up.
The pups would scream and whimper for a few minutes, and then figure out how to get over to their mother for sustenance.
The mothers were laid out, soaking up the sunshine. I liked watching this mother, below, who was apparently hot. Every once in a while she languidly dug her front flipper into the sand and swept some cooling sand onto her back. You can see the morsels of sand on her back and the depression she has made in the sand on the right.
You can also see her whiskers in this photo (above). Living at sea for most of their days and foraging at great depths, elephant seals use these whiskers (aka vibrissae) to fish in complete darkness, sensing the location of prey.
Often a little itch was scratched with the flipper claws.
The bulls were fun to watch too. Occasionally one would awake and prop himself up, lifting the front of his body, and proclaiming his superiority with a territorial roar or two. There were rumblings and roars that always turned my head.
But every single time I watched, it was all more bluster than anything. They are so heavy and awkward on land, they would plop across the sand for about three steps and then collapse, lay back down and go to sleep.
I’ve read that males have brutal fights in their hierarchical society, but we were witnessing a different stage of life when there were few males and the females were busy with pups.
There was an overflow lagoon where a few males swam around. You can see a male in the photo below, just right of the center.
This male, below, hauled out of the lagoon and found himself a comfortable spot in the parking lot.
Crashing waves, brisk winds, briny sea aromas, and squawking gulls are all a thrill when we go to the beach on a winter day. Watching active elephant seals–roaring, nursing or squealing–and it all makes for an absolutely super day.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.