The Cambrian

It’s a peeling time of year on elephant seal beach

The young elephant seal on the left hasn’t molted yet. The other one at the Piedras Blancas rookery is almost finished.
The young elephant seal on the left hasn’t molted yet. The other one at the Piedras Blancas rookery is almost finished. PHOTO BY JOAN CROWDER

Elephant Seal News Joan Crowder

The beaches at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal viewing site are packed with seals once again, but they are a different population from the ones that filled the space this winter. From December to March, adult males, adult females and new pups were the attraction. Now the big males are on their way to Alaska and most of the pups have taught themselves to swim and headed out on their first sea journey.

The young seals that are there now are much less dramatic. They are mostly juveniles from 1 to 5 years old, with some adult females sprinkled among them. They have all come in to loll in the sun and shed a layer of skin. It’s the molting season, and they look pretty tattered and torn as their skin and hair come off in pieces. Their old coats come in various shades of brown and

tan, and when they are through molting, they have sleek new silvery gray duds.

It’s not easy to tell the males from the females when the seals are so young, as a male’s big nose — the proboscis — doesn’t start to show up until he is about 5 years old, and then it just grows a bit longer each year. Some of the males on the beach now have little rat-like noses that distinguish them from the females with sweeter-looking faces.

The way they play is another clue to gender, as the males spar and bang their necks together like the adult males do when they really fight. They’re alpha males in training, but only a few will actually become alpha breeders.

These juveniles play around a bit, huddle together in piles and, on a warm day, jostle for space in the wet sand at the shoreline, lining up like a seal parking lot. The molting

process takes about a month, and the seals don’t eat while they are here. After they fast and shed their skin, they will head north toward their feeding grounds, slimmer and sleeker.

The next age group to arrive in the round-robin molting season will be the subadult males, feisty adolescents that joust and playfight, entertaining visitors a bit more.

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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