One of the most interesting things about elephant seals is the way they are programmed to know when it is their turn to haul out of the sea and where to go to do it. Although each one travels alone on its long migration, we know just what age group and what gender or genders will be on the beaches at Piedras Blancas each month.
The E-seal News, the information pamphlet that we hand out on the bluff, has a calendar on it telling which seals are here each month, and the seals cooperate, except for a rare one now and then that turns up at the wrong time. (Maybe he didnt get the memo.)
Some of the seals are tagged in their first year with numbers and letters on a plastic tag attached to its rear flipper. Researchers have found that most of them return to the rookery where they were born to give birth, mate, molt and rest. When a docent guide sees a tag, if the numbers can be read, it is reported to marine mammal researchers, along with its gender and approximate age.
Some others are tagged with high-tech devices that record the depth of their dives, how long they stay down and other details of their activities. Recent findings from this research record a new depth record of a dive of 5,700 feet. Another is the fact that some weaned pups travel as far as Alaska during their first migration. These are truly remarkable animals.
Right now they dont look so remarkable. There are many seals on the beach, but they dont appear to be doing anything very important. These are juveniles, males and females, from Januarys pups up to about 6 years old, snoozing and playing.
We call this the fall haul out, a rest and recreation period of about a month when they take a break from their solitary months at sea, diving and foraging, to rest and socialize on the beach. The reasons for the recess may be more important than we think.
It is a time to get gravity back after being buoyant and nearly weightless in the sea. Like astronauts, they lose bone mass and need some weight bearing activity to build it up again. The journey also gets them into a pattern of returning to home base, a lesson that is vital when they are older and ready for the birthing and mating seasons.
Among these juveniles we are beginning to see some larger males, the first arrivals of the next migrating group to gather here. We call them sub-adult males, the elephant seal version of teenage boys, and they like to play and spar.
People often think that they are fighting, but they are just practicing the skills they will need as adults when real fighting and biting become part of the mating rituals. They will be on the beaches until the huge adult males start coming in in November to set up territories for the winter birthing and mating.
Joan Crowders 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.