The Cambrian

Elephant Seal News: Young male elephant seals sharpening fighting skills

Subadult males joust on the shore at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery.
Subadult males joust on the shore at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. PHOTO BY JOAN CROWDER

The scene is getting livelier on the elephant seal beaches at Piedras Blancas. The subadult males started coming in to molt last week. These guys are the teen-agers of the elephant seal world. They aren’t ready to compete with the huge adult males, but they’re probably feeling their hormones.

They like to joust and play, banging their necks together and getting in practice for real fights when they reach maturity. They are also noisier than the younger seals. They test their voices by making a loud belching sound, but it doesn’t have the timbre of the adult males’ booming voices.

The seals are in various stages of molting. Visitors ask why they are so many different colors, from almost white to almost black, and why some of them look so scruffy. They are losing a layer of “old” tan or brown skin and hair and growing a new smooth, silvery gray layer. It’s like a spa vacation. They come in fat and raggedy, lie in the sun and fast for about a month and leave thinner, rested and wearing a new coat.

The seals that have been here for the past month were females and juveniles between the ages of about 2 and 6, and most of them are completing their molt. Although they travel alone in the sea, each age group is wired to know when it’s their turn to come in. Somehow they get the message — “it’s May, you should be on the beach in California.”

The busy tourist season is starting, with many foreign visitors coming to see the seals. The parking lot will be especially crowded because the north end of the lot and the viewing site at the north end will be closed all summer. The work and the closure were scheduled to begin Wednesday, May 26. California State Parks has designed a new trail on the north bluff, with areas of boardwalk. The trail, handicapped accessible and with railings, will replace the badly eroded and rather rugged trail that is becoming tricky to travel, if not dangerous. The new pathway will extend all the way to the paved parking lot above the current viewing site. The work, which was scheduled to start yesterday, is being done by the California Conservation Corps and is not expected to be completed until October.

Meanwhile, volunteer docent guides will be working on the boardwalk at the south end of the parking lot and between the parking lot and the boardwalk to provide visitors with information about the seals. It will be interesting to see whether the activity of the workers and equipment will cause the seals on the north beach to move to the south end or north to the beaches near the light station, or if they will stay put.

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