Happy International Day of the Seal! I just heard that from Joe Burke on KALW and had to add it to today’s post.
Dave and I had slots for the noon tour. I was the tiniest bit worried about some members of our group because we overheard grumblings among the mother and daughters of one family who seemed peeved by the father’s lack of planning. The dad was certainly gung-ho about the upcoming hike and told our guide that he came every year. (Maybe his teenage daughters had seen enough of the elephant seals to last them through their thirties, and that’s why they weren’t thrilled to be spending their spring break there again.)
But everyone got along fine. Our tour guide informed us of many interesting facts about the elephant seal, such as this gem: the male elephant seal who proves to be the biggest baddest seal on the strip gets to be alpha and have a harem of 15 to 30 females. But the fact that really struck me had to do with the female’s gestation period. After the male finds a mate and they do their procreative thing, the female swims off into the ocean to feed for a few months. During that time, her fertilized egg is on hold, not growing, just waiting until the mother-to-be returns to the shore, when something kickstarts the growth process. Then nine months after that—which is closer to a year after she’s mated—a 75-pound seal pup slides out ready to nurse. It’s like getting pregnant but putting off the mood swings and weird cravings for a couple of months.
At the staging area there’s a whiteboard tally of how many elephant seals are on shore on a given day. I don’t remember the number of adult males, but I do remember that there were 47 females and over 1400 pups. That’s about 30 kids per mom. Those are pretty scary odds. Especially when you hear about the “super weaners.” Those are the ones who nurse aggressively for a long time so they get huge before swimming out into the ocean on their own.
The first sighting was from up on the cliff down to a small lagoon dubbed Loser Beach by our tour guide. That’s where the males go who failed to become alphas to commiserate with the other males who failed to be alphas. No harems here. Thus the name.
Once we’d crossed a few dunes, we came upon our first elephant seal up close. Everyone got out their cameras and took photos, staying the respectful 20 feet away as we were told. It didn’t do much. Apparently most of the time, they just sort of lie there, occasionally flipping sand up on their backs with their fins to work as a sunscreen. That first one seemed to be sneezing. When I asked the guide if that’s what it was, she said it was probably just something up his nose that he was trying to get rid of. Isn’t that kind of the definition for a sneeze?
Next we walked over to the beach where there were elephant seals as far as you could see. If I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I probably would have thought they were big rocks. A few huddled together, but most of them spread out enough to allow each other a perimeter of a few feet of sand. But it was close quarters right on the beach. Further up there were a few outliers. It’s hard to imagine them traveling that hundred yards or so just for a little more privacy because they really don’t move that fast—it’s quite a chore to transport that many pounds (up to 6000!) on those two puny flippers.
It was a nice afternoon walk on a gorgeous day, and I got to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat from mere feet away.
We left them lying there on the beach and drove to Duarte’s, which apparently is a local institution, a must-visit when you’re in the area. All that walking made me hungry and thirsty, so I had a lager and Mexican cole slaw and counted my blessings that I was a human and not an elephant seal.