The first adult male elephant seals began arriving last week for their turn in the round-robin rotation of ages and genders during the molting season. The flyer that docents hand out to visitors at the viewing site notes which seals will be here during each month and, except for a few seals that didn’t get the memo, the calendar has a high degree of accuracy.
Although the seals travel solo on their long migrations in the sea, they know when it’s their turn to haul out on the beach and shed their skin, and they know where to go to do it. The huge adult males are the last in the pattern, maybe because they make the longest journeys.
After the winter birthing and breeding season on the beaches at Piedras Blancas, most of them travel to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. After fasting for over three months, they are ready to forage along the continental shelf and in deep waters around the Aleutians, bulking up before their return trip. New research has recorded a dive of 5,700 feet to the record of the elephant seal, the second deepest diving mammal, next to the sperm whale.
The summer trip to molt gives us a second chance to observe the big guys in their natural habitat, as they rest in the sun, play in the water and appear to pretty much ignore the human visitors from all over the world who find them fascinating. This time of year there are more seals on the beach at the north end of the parking lot than by the boardwalk on the south.
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The adult males are especially impressive. They can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and grow to 16 feet long. As the first ones glide out of the surf, the “subadult” males (seal versions of teen-agers) that have been posturing and playing on the beach look startled and make way for the much bigger guys.
With male elephant seals, it’s all about size, as dominance is proved with bulk and big voices. In the winter, when one male will have 30 or 40 females in his harem and challenge any male that gets in his way, there’s plenty of action, and even some bloodshed.
But in the summer, with no females to fight over, they may play the “I’m bigger than you” game, stretching tall and briefly banging necks together, but they are more likely to snooze and snuggle, using each other as big soft pillows. They will be here for about a month, then, with sleek new gray coats, they will head north again, one by one, to feast on deep dwelling creatures before they return in the winter. It’s understandable that they make the journey to our beaches to mate, but it seems like a long way to go just to shed a layer of skin and hair.
A quotation from Henry Beston, printed in the book, “Elephant Seals” by Carole and Phil Adams, reminds us not to judge them through our human eyes. It reads in part: “In a world older and more complex than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”