The beaches at the Piedras Blancas viewing site have been covered from bluff to sea with elephant seals during the molting season. Right now the population is changing as the juveniles, ages about 2 to 6 years old, complete their month-long molt, shedding a layer of skin and hair and heading to sea in sleek new grey coats.
Sub-adult males, the seal version of teenagers, are arriving in shabby brown or tan skin for their turn on the beach. Although the seals travel alone in the sea, they somehow know when and where to go in the musical chair-like rotation as they migrate from sea to beach.
One of the frequent questions when so many seals are on the beach concerns how many fish they must eat while they are here. But that’s an irrelevant question because the elephant seals are always fasting when they’re in this area and don’t eat at all. They forage in the northern Pacific, mostly off Canada and Alaska, eating deep-dwelling creatures like squid, octopus and rays.
During the molting season they are kind of smelly, with all that dead skin falling off in pieces onto the beach, but because they don’t eat they don’t defecate. When people complain about the smell, we remind them of what it would smell like if they did eat.
As technology becomes more sophisticated, research has increased on the northern elephant seals that come to Piedras Blancas and Año Nuevo near Santa Cruz. A recent study from UC Davis reported that the swine flu virus (H1N1) has been detected in two seals from the Central Coast, one from the rookery at Piedras Blancas and one from Año Nuevo. The Contra Costa Times reported that the study was done in 2010 and just reported last week in the online journal PLOS ONE.
UC Davis wildlife biologists swabbed the noses of 72 elephant seals over the course of two years at the two rookeries. They were sampled before and after their spring migrations to northern Pacific waters. They tested clean before departure, but two came back bearing the virus, although they had no outward signs of the disease. Researchers say they don’t know how the seals contracted the virus, but that it is not a cause for alarm for the general public.
The abstract of the report said that further testing of the viruses found that they could be replicated in canine kidney cells, but not in human epithelial respiratory cells, “indicating these isolates may be elephant seal-adapted viruses.”
However, the information is a warning to veterinarians, researchers and marine mammal rescuers to use caution when handling the animals directly. And it’s another reason to leave the seals alone, keep dogs away from them, and watch them from the viewing areas as they go through their yearly life cycle, coming and going on the beaches.