While people welcomed the storms that ended the drought this month, the high tides and high surf wreaked havoc at the elephant seal rookery. January is usually the month when mothers and newborn pups rest on the wide beaches at Piedras Blancas, but this year the surf almost obliterated their birthing place, reducing the beaches to narrow strips below the bluffs or covering them completely with roiling, foamy waves.
There were a number of pups born early this season, as more pregnant females arrived in late December and early January than in previous years. It was not known whether these numbers meant that there would be more births this year or whether they were just arriving earlier than usual.
In any case, when the combination of high tides and high surf began hammering the beaches, there were many new pups. The scrawny black pups are nearly helpless when they are born. They are not very mobile, and they can’t swim, so when the rough waters hit, many were separated from their mothers, drowned or were swept out to sea.
The frantic mothers yelled and called as the pups cried in fear. Mothers became confused about whose baby was whose, and those that lost pups sometimes tried to steal one from another mother.
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The reduced space on the beaches also forced the big males closer toward the bluff, and on a rough day, the harems which had been clearly defined—one alpha
male with a number of females— were jumbled about. The males appeared almost as confused as the females and pups and caused a stir when they got too close to females or threatened to accidentally crush a pup.
The seals were forced together, packing what was left of the beach, as pregnant females continued to arrive but could find no safe place away from the water to deliver their pups. A number of them headed to areas south of the elephant seal viewing site, where there were some (also narrow) beaches left.
This was a dangerous move for both the seals and the people who get too near them. The massive males can be aggressive if disturbed, and they have huge canine teeth and strong jaws. A mother can also be dangerous, as she will attack someone who gets near her pup. State Parks rangers are patrolling the area, and people are reminded that the seals are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, so disturbing them is a federal offense, and can engender a fine and other penalties.
When the waters recede and calm down, it will be interesting to see what’s left of the new generation of elephant seals. But their life cycle continues. The nursing pups will get fat, and their mothers will mate again. The mating season has already begun, so there will still be plenty to see at the viewing site, but it won’t all be pretty.
Joan Crowder is a volunteer docent for Central Coast Friends of the Elephant Seal. For more information, call 924-1628 or visit www.elephantseal.org.