The beaches at the elephant seal viewing site at Piedras Blancas look much different from the way they looked a couple of weeks ago. Most of the adult seals are gone, and the territory belongs to the weaned pups, now called weaners. After a month of getting fat from their mothers’ rich milk, the weaners are on their own. The mothers, after fasting while giving birth and nursing, have mated again and headed out to sea to renourish their bodies. The females can lose as much as 20 pounds a day while on the beach.
The pups, if all goes well, can gain about 10 pounds a day and look like fat black footballs when their mothers leave. They hang out in groups for a week or two, trying to stay out of the way of the mating activities when the huge males are chasing each other and fighting.
When the last females are gone, the males leave and head for their deep foraging grounds in Alaska. They have lost hundreds of pounds while fasting since early December. While the weaners wait for things to cool down, they molt off their black birthday suits and get new silvery gray coats.
They make their way to the water’s edge and begin trying to figure out what they are supposed to do next. They often cry in high-pitched voices and look up winsomely with their big eyes at the human visitors, who are surprised to learn that a marine mammal that spends 80 to 90 percent of its time in the sea doesn’t swim when it is born. And its mother doesn’t teach it to swim or eat.
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Instinct has to kick in, as they begin going into the shallow waters, blowing bubbles, floating, diving and bobbling about, teaching themselves the skills they will need to travel and find food.
It can take six weeks or more before they are seaworthy enough to head north to begin foraging. It was believed that the weaners didn’t travel far in their first year — only up to waters off Oregon and Washington — but more sophisticated tracking devices were used recently and found that a few of them went all the way to Alaska.
Although they obviously enjoy each other’s company as they play and practice in the water, they will become solitary travelers on their perilous journeys.
A buoy was recently installed in waters off the light station to detect tagged great white sharks as they pass by. The purpose is to see if more white sharks come into the area when the weaners begin swimming north. The sharks and orcas are elephant seals’ main predators, and fewer than half of the pups will make it to breeding age.