Swimming lessons are in progress at the elephant seal viewing areas at Piedras Blancas. But no one is teaching. It’s all trial and error as the weaned pups, now called weaners, teach themselves to swim.
It’s surprising that an animal that spends about 80 percent of its life in, and deep under, water isn’t able to swim when it’s born, and just as surprising that its mother doesn’t even take the pup near the water before she abruptly heads to sea a month after giving birth.
All she does is feed the pup her rich milk for about a month. The pup can gain as much as 10 pounds a day. The mother can lose as much as 20 pounds a day, as she doesn’t eat during birthing and nursing, and by the end of the nursing period the milk can get up to 60 percent fat.
That fat is what the pup survives on after the mother mates and leaves, and it’s important that there’s enough fat to last until the weaner can swim well enough to set out to sea to forage on its own.
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Many of the weaners have left by now, but there are still some bobbing about along the shoreline and among the rocks, safe from predators such as great white sharks and orcas. They blow bubbles, float — sometimes upside down — and take shallow dives. They often yell as they play and as they come out of the water onto the beach.
Visitors ask what they’re yelling about, but we don’t know. Do they miss their mothers? Are they hungry? Are they having fun? Or is it just for the yell of it?
The weaners look different from the way they did when their mothers left. They were black and roundly fat. Now they have shed their black birthday suits and become silvery gray, and they have lost a lot of weight. Not all of them will make it because not all of them had enough fat on them when their mothers left. So this time of year there are always some dead babies on the beach, being cleaned up by the gulls and, when there are few people around, the turkey vultures drop in.
Those who do make it set out on long and perilous journeys, heading north to learn how to find their first meals. Although they snuggle and play together on the beach, they travel alone in the sea and somehow know where to go and when and where to return when their first adventures are over.
Older seals are returning to the beach now — juveniles from about 2 to 6 years old — and females who had their pups early in the season. They are coming in to molt, first in the musical chair-like pattern that brings different age groups in at different times to shed a layer of skin and hair every spring and summer.