There was a lot of sex on the beaches at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony last week as males took advantage of their last chance to mate with the females who gave birth this season.
The births began in December and peaked in January. The mothers nurse their pups for about a month, then go into estrus and mate to produce a pup next winter. After mating, they head for the sea, ready to swim north or northwest to forage after fasting during birthing and nursing. A female can lose as much as 20 pounds a day during her stay on land, while her pup can gain as much 10 pounds a day on the rich milk, which can reach 60 percent fat.
As she scurries toward the surf, males that have been lurking around the harems on the beach descend on her for one last opportunity to mate. As she tries to swim away, the human visitors on the boardwalk viewing area root for her to escape her huge pursuers.
The males, who have lost hundreds of pounds since their arrival in late November or early January, are also ready to eat again, but most of them stay until the last females are gone.
Now the beach is mostly populated with fat weaned pups, called weaners, shedding their black birthday suits and turning silvery gray, losing weight and ready to test the waters for the first time.
It seems strange that a creature that spends 80 to 90 percent of its life at sea is not able to swim when it is born and is not taught to swim by its mother. But after playing near the shore and in tide pools among the rocks, blowing bubbles and practicing diving for six to eight weeks, a weaner is ready to embark on its first voyage, instinctively heading to foraging areas and knowing what to do when they get there.
This is a cute time at the viewing site as the winsome weaners play and swim with each other, sometimes looking up with their wide dark eyes at the people watching them.
Friends of the Elephant Seal will present a talk by Richard Condit, Ph.D., at 5 p.m. Saturday, March 9, at Rabobank, 1070 Main St.
Condit, a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, will speak on elephant seal population growth across all of the elephant seal rookeries, including the one at Piedras Blancas.
Doors open at 4:30 p.m. Reservations are not necessary and the event is free. For more information, call Friends of the Elephant Seal at 924-1628 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joan Crowder's Elephant Seal News column is special to The Cambrian. Friends of the Elephant Seal is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about elephant seals. For details, call 924-1628 or visit www.elephantseal.org.