August is a transition in the elephant seal year. Most adult males, with their distinctive trunk-like noses, have left the beach. Youngsters return for their fall haul-out, six weeks of R&R.
The adults come to molt their skin during the summer months, and some are still peeling off last year’s brown skin in favor of pearly gray underneath. They come out of the water for the skin to conclude its useful life and make way for the new skin. Adult bulls range in age from about eight years old to fully mature seals of 12 or even 13 years. That nose and the calloused chest shield start growing at about age five and continue to grow throughout their lives, so it’s a rough indicator of age.
Juvenile seals, up to 5 years old, return during September and October for six weeks on the sand.
Pups born during the 2014 breeding season return from their first foraging migration now. They are the smallest seals on the beach. Less than half the pups survive the first year, when they head north toward Canada and Alaska and out into the north Pacific. Older seals swim all the way to the Aleutian Islands. Young seals probably don’t get that far. I figure any seal that survives its first long swim is a success.
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They teach themselves to swim and hunt in the spring after their mothers wean them. They venture into the ocean compelled by forces we humans can only guess at. Their ocean muse calls them north, where there’s fish and squid to eat.
Look for size and developmental differences to gauge the age of these young seals in the next two months. The population is constantly changing as more seals arrive. Some of the seals have a color-coded tag on their hind flippers that indicates where they were born.
About three-quarters of the seals return to their birth beach. About 10 percent of Piedras Blancas seal pups get a white tag. All colors of tags show up here. The tags are small, only an inch and a half long, and can’t be seen when the flippers are folded, as they are when the seals are at rest. Look for a seal stretching its flippers to see a white (Piedras Blancas), red (San Nicolas Island), yellow (San Miguel Island), pink (Farallones Islands and Point Reyes), purple (Gorda) or green (Año Nuevo) tag.
Visitors come from every corner of the world to see these seals. Not all visitors are fluent in English, but they have cellphones and tablet computers.
Friends of the Elephant Seal provides access to translations in 10 languages, in both text and, in most cases, speech. Wi-Fi and QR codes make interpretive material available instantly. Cantonese, Mandarin, Danish, German, English, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese and Portuguese are only a click away.