The Cambrian

Elephant Seal News: Foreign visitors can outnumber Americans at seal site

A male elephant seal's face is molting.
A male elephant seal's face is molting. PHOTO BY JOAN CROWDER

A sudden increase in the number of foreign visitors is a sign of summer at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal viewing site. Europeans, Brits and Aussies often outnumber people from the United States this time of year. It’s a fun time for the docent guides, who have the opportunity to share the beauty and the creatures of the California Central Coast with families from around the world. Sometimes there is a language barrier, but more often someone in a family or group speaks English and is able to interpret the facts about the seals that the docent explains.

The elephant seals are known to some visitors as “sea elephants.” They may have seen television shows focusing on elephant seals, but often those feature southern elephant seals, the version of our seals that thrive in Chile and Argentina, and are somewhat different—but not a lot different — from the ones they see here. The southern elephant seals grow even larger than the ones on our coast that reach weights of 5,000 pounds and lengths of 16 feet.

Visitors from abroad and from across America are amazed that they can stand so close to the seals, observing them safely from the boardwalks as the seals go about seal business, ignoring the humans above them.

Actually, the summer is a relatively quiet season, when the seals are molting, coming to the beaches to shed a layer of skin. But to people who haven’t been here in the winter, when pups are born and testosterone-fueled males spar and fight, just seeing so many seals doing their thing is a treat.

The adolescent males are arriving now, and the huge males will be here in July. There are no real territorial battles during molting season, and the males often just use each other as pillows as they relax and shed their skin. But they do play “I’m bigger than you” now and then, stretching their necks to appear tall and bellowing at each other. They begin playing that game by sparring as youngsters and it escalates with age and size, giving them lots of practice for the real thing as adults.

It’s all a good show any time of year for visitors to the viewing site, who can also see harbor seals on the nearby rocks and hear sea lions on the distant rock, and sometimes watch an otter in the kelp. Ground squirrels are everywhere, too tame because people feed them, but a photo op for visitors. Gopher snakes slither slowly across the paths, little bush rabbits hop in and out of the brush, and on a special day, humpback

whales can be seen in the distance. As tourists drive south, they may even see zebras on the hills. This is truly a magical place.

Joan Crowder’s Elephant Seal News column is special to The Cambrian. Friends of the Elephant Seal is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about elephant seals. For detials, call 924-1628 or visit www.elephantseal.org.

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