Talk to anyone who has spent time watching the thriving elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas and one word will be repeated frequently: Amazing.
“People come here from all over the world. It’s amazing,” says Doris Somerville, who drives over from Paso Robles to volunteer as a docent at the rookery.
Activity at the rookery is reaching its peak as hundreds of the large marine mammals gather on the beach just south of the Piedras Blancas Light Station for the annual ritual of giving birth and mating from late December to March.
They spend most of the rest of the year feeding throughout the northern Pacific Ocean. Ungainly on land, the elephant seals mostly lay on the beach like huge, elongated brown lumps, constantly flipping sand on themselves. But intense and dramatic bursts of activity regularly occur.
A mother gives birth to a tiny black pup and begins to nurse it. A pitched battle between enormous males erupts as they try to set up breeding harems. While the two behemoths fight, a smaller male rushes in and tries to mount a female, which bleats loudly and tries to wriggle away.
“He’s a young male and hasn’t figured it out yet,” explains docent Ken Dunn of Cambria with a grin. “You don’t try to mate with a pregnant female.”
Kimberly Daniels of Folsom is watching all this activity with delight. She stopped at the rookery while on a holiday trip down the coast.
“I think they’re awesome,” she said. “It’s amazing that they come back to the same beach year after year.”
Since 2000, blue-jacketed volunteer docents with the group Friends of the Elephant Seal have shared information about the seals to 1.5 million visitors to the rookery. Many come there specifically to see the seals, while others notice the big crowds while driving by on Highway 1 and stop to see what’s going on.
Many of the visitors have the same questions, says docent Bill Goodger of San Luis Obispo. Three of the most common are:
Why do they flip sand on themselves? Answer: It keeps them cool and protects their skin from ultraviolet light.
What are their predators? Answer: Great white sharks and orcas.
How much weight do they lose while they are on the beach? Answer: Males can lose up to 2,000 pounds and females up to 600 pounds because they don’t eat while on the beach.
Docents say they enjoy the overwhelmingly positive feedback they get from visitors. But, fascination with the elephant seals and their life story is what motivates them most.
“They’re very unique and just amazing to see,” Goodger says.
Birthing at the rookery will peak in mid-January and is followed by breeding, which peaks in mid-February around Valentine’s Day. The seals will then head back out to sea to feed. They will return to the beach at various times during the summer to molt.
An estimated 18,000 seals use the beach at some time during the year. The northern elephant seal population is estimated at 175,000, up from only 50 a century ago when they were hunted nearly to extinction. The first seals began using the Piedras Blancas rookery in 1990.
IF YOU GO
The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery is located 14 miles north of Cambria on Highway 1. The rookery is open for viewing every day of the year. No admission fee or reservation is required.