It looks like an ordinary March at the elephant seal viewing site at Piedras Blancas, with weaned pups (weaners) playing on the beach and bobbling about in the near-shore shallows. The weaners, having gained as much as 10 pounds a day for the month they were nursing, are now losing weight and venturing into the water to roll around, float, dive and blow bubbles. It takes them over a month to become seaworthy enough to launch themselves into their northward migration and figure out how to forage for food.
But this year the process will be even more difficult for some of them. According to the latest seal census, although a record number of pups were born in the rookery this season — about 4,500 — about 300 of them perished during the high surf and high tides that engulfed the beaches as a result of El Niño. And the results of the stormy conditions were compounded when hundreds of pups were separated from their mothers during the tumultuous, watery chaos on the crowded beaches.
Many of these pups were healthy enough to survive until now, but appear to be underweight and unlikely to make it through their first year. According to marine biologist Brian Hatfield, there are about 400 of these scrawny survivors — about four times as many as were counted the last several seasons.
But there are still gatherings of healthy, well-fed weaners, called “weaner pods,” playing on the beach, and small groups of them swimming and squealing in the pools among the rocks and in the surf. They often appear to be practicing their swimming skills together, as though learning from and encouraging each other. In spite of the fact that they will spend most of their lives deep in the sea, the pups don’t know how to swim when they are born, and their mothers don’t teach them.
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They just nurse their babies for a month, mate again and head out to sea, leaving the abruptly weaned pups behind to figure out their next step in life by themselves. That’s what they are doing now.
Most of the adult seals that took part in the birthing and breeding season are on their way north to renourish their bodies after fasting while they were here. Last week there were still a few adult males on the beach, but they were a shadow of their former selves, actually skinny after fasting for almost four months. By now they are probably on their way to their foraging grounds in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, where they will eat squid, octopus, skates, rays and other deep-dwelling prey.
As the weaners get ready for their first sea journey, a few adult females and juveniles are beginning to return to the rookery to begin the spring and summer season of molting, when different age groups will come in at different times in a round-robin rotation, basking on the beach, fasting and losing a layer of skin. Although the dramatic winter season is over, there are some seals at the viewing site all year.
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.