The Cambrian

Elephant Seal News: It’s a pealing time of year

Elephant seals look pretty scruffy during the molt.
Elephant seals look pretty scruffy during the molt.

The Friends of the Elephant Seal webcam, called a LiveCam, is up and running. Located on the south end of the south boardwalk at the Piedras Blancas viewing site, the solar-powered video camera is aimed toward beach areas to the south and west. It can be accessed by logging on to www.elephantseal.org and clicking on the directions to the LiveCam.

Right now the seals are pretty quiet, as it’s the molting season, but in the winter it will eavesdrop on Mother Nature’s big show as the seals give birth and the huge males posture and fight.

The beaches are filled with seals now, but it’s a different crowd from those that covered the sand in January and February. The big adult males have embarked on their long journey to Alaska, where they will bulk up again after fasting for over three months here. There are only a few of this year’s weaned pups, called weaners, left behind and still teaching themselves to swim. They play in the water and rest on the sand, but will soon be gone.

Some adult females that headed to sea in February to forage after fasting, birthing, and mating have returned to molt. Although she mated in February, the female’s fetus has not yet started to grow. But she is nourished from feeding at sea for a couple of months, and after her molt, it is believed that hormones kick in that cause the fetus to begin to develop. She will migrate and feed again, then return next winter to give birth to one pup.

Most of the seals that are here now were at sea during the birthing and breeding season. These are juveniles, young males and females up to about 6 years old. They are resting quietly and they look pretty scruffy. People ask if they are sick, or even dead. Some look like their sunburn is peeling, others appear to be wearing shabby sweaters or tattered blankets. They vary in color from light tan to dark gray.

The annual process is called a catastrophic molt, when the seals shed a layer of skin and hair to reveal a smooth new coat beneath. The molt is a thin layer, with soft hairs on the outside, rougher root hairs that resemble Velcro on the inside.

It’s not easy to tell males and females apart until they reach about 4 years old, when the males can be identified by their pointed noses, which grow longer each year until they become the trunk-like proboscis that gives elephant seals their name. The young males often play- fight and test their changing voices. Females are quieter, and they keep their sweet dog-like faces.

Seals don’t eat during the molting process, which takes three to four weeks. They rest until their old skin is gone and their smooth new gray suits are ready, then take to the sea again. They leave the beach scattered with patches of skin and hair.

Joan Crowder is a volunteer docent for Friends of the Elephant Seal, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about elephant seals. For more information, call 924-1628 or visit www.elephantseal.org.

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