The Cambrian

Elephant seal high season ramping up as big males arrive

The first huge adult male elephant seal of the season arrived on the beach last week, announcing the beginning of the winter birthing and breeding activities. Undoubtedly feeling heavy, hitting gravity for the first time in about four months, he just rested near the shoreline, tossing sand on his back now and then. It’s a long journey from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to Piedras Blancas, but apparently worth the swim, powered by testosterone, to get in on the breeding season. The adult males make the round trip twice a year to bulk up on deep-sea prey in the north Pacific. The females and juveniles also head north to forage, but most don’t go as far as Alaska.

When visitors to the viewing site at Piedras Blancas see hundreds of seals on the beach, they sometimes assume that all the fish in this area are being threatened. But that’s not the case. The elephant seals’ lifestyle is made up of feasting and fasting. They feast during their long migrations north, but when they are here they are fasting.

The huge bulls, at their peak size when they arrive in the fall, will go almost four months without eating. When told that the seals feed in Alaska, some visitors ask if they feast on salmon. But that’s also a wrong assumption. The second-deepest diving mammal (next to the sperm whale), elephant seals have been known to dive to 5,000 feet. They usually dive several thousand feet beneath the surface, where they forage for the creatures that live in the depths. With eyes especially adapted for seeing in the dark and spotting bioluminescent prey, and strong jaws with large canine teeth, they are equipped for submarine dining. Squid, octopus, skates, rays, dogfish and hagfish are a large part of their diet.

Considering the large numbers of seals that are here during the winter, they are pretty polite guests. They don’t eat our fish, and because they don’t eat, they don’t poop and foul our sands or waters.

Bulked up for the season of fasting, bulls will continue to arrive this month, challenging each other for space on the beach. The pregnant females will begin to arrive in mid-December, and the first pup is usually born around Dec. 20, with births continuing through January and early February. Each mother will nurse her pup for about a month, then mate again, so the big guys will be chasing each other, bellowing and fighting for mating rights during late January and February. It’s an exciting time, and an opportunity to view the seals’ cycle of life without disturbing them.

Joan Crowder is a volunteer docent for Central Coast Friends of the Elephant Seal. For more information, call 924-1628 or visit www.elephantseal.org.

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