The Cambrian

Elephant Seal News: Surviving elephant seal pups fattening up on the beach

‘Weaners’ (weaned elephant seal pups) cuddle and play at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery.
‘Weaners’ (weaned elephant seal pups) cuddle and play at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. PHOTO BY JOAN CROWDER

Although it’s been a rough year for this new elephant seal generation, with high tides and high surf taking their toll of new pups, the beach below the boardwalk at the viewing site is populated with fat, healthy looking survivors. Most of the mothers have nursed their pups for a month, then mated and embarked on their migration route, heading north to feed and leaving their pups behind.

The rich milk fattens the pups until they look like blimps, giving them enough reserves to survive until they become seaworthy and can fend for themselves. The weaned pups, called weaners, huddle together out of the way of the big males in groups called weaner pods. As they molt off their black birthday suits, they turn silvery gray.

These cute, fat babies with sweet faces and wide eyes are crowd pleasers. As they yip and play, they inspire smiles from human onlookers. They yell while jostling in a crowded weaner get-together, and they yell while they explore the shallow waters around the rocks, teaching themselves to swim.

“Why do they cry?” people ask. “Do they miss their mothers? Are they hungry? Are they afraid?”

Maybe they yell for any or all of the above reasons, or maybe they cry for the fun of it. They don’t seem distressed and, although it’s tempting to endow them with our human emotional patterns, they are who they are, and it’s just what they do.

As this column was being written in the third week of February, there were still quite a few females with pups on the beach, and the big males were lurking around and occasionally chasing each other, hoping to get a chance to mate with one of the females when they were through nursing.

The pups can gain as much as 10 pounds a day while they nurse, and for every pound the pup gains, the mother loses two pounds. So as the pups puff up, the mothers slim down, and a pup may appear to outweigh its mother at this point.

The males have really thinned down as well. Most of them arrived at the end of November or beginning of December, and they haven’t eaten since then. Their massive bulk is gone and they are long and almost skinny, compared to the way they looked when they arrived. It’s about time for them to head north to their feeding grounds in Alaska.

Sadly, the beach at the north end of parking lot was nearly wiped out during the high surf, and only a few weaners there survived. But nature has its own patterns, reminding us that we can’t control everything.

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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