Cambrian: Opinion

Piedras Blancas greets newborn elephant seal pups

A pup peers over its mother as a seagull stands nearby. The gulls arrive with the new pups and eat the afterbirth.
A pup peers over its mother as a seagull stands nearby. The gulls arrive with the new pups and eat the afterbirth. Special to The Cambrian

Elephant seal pups come with the turning of the season. The first was born Dec. 7, followed by a second a few days later. More are born by the day. Before the end of the breeding season, more than 5,000 new seals will show their faces at Piedras Blancas.

The cold storm didn’t faze them. Two more were born overnight.

Seeing one born is wonderful, watching that new life come into the world. The mother knows what to do, turning to her newborn to bond with it, by scent and by voice. She barks at it, and soon the little one will bark back.

Visitors want to see a baby born. As with all wildlife viewing, patience is the key. Find a likely group of new mothers and those who haven’t yet given birth. Friends of the Elephant Seal docents, in bright blue jackets, can advise on likely candidates. Then settle in. Bring a chair and get comfortable.

Mothers in labor often arch their backs and squirm around in the sand. They may flip so much sand that they dig ditches on both sides of themselves.

Births are on their own schedule. A seal may appear ready to give birth, then roll over and go to sleep. Be patient and alert.

Gulls are a good indicator of a birth. Their superior bird senses show them as soon as a pup pops out. They gather to eat the afterbirth. They keep the beach clean and are nourished, part of the coastal ecosystem.

Mother and pup stay together for about a month, the mother feeding the baby with fat-rich milk. Mothers don’t eat while they are on the beach nursing. They rely on their own blubber resources to make milk. Mothers lose about a third of their body weight during that one short month. That weight loss may be the trigger that nudges them back into the ocean to feed.

An adult bull keeps the peace by being the dominant alpha presiding over his harem. Usually, a threatening eye will drive off less dominant bulls who try to sneak into the group of females and pups. Subdominant bulls are driven by the desire to mate, but females won't be receptive to any bull until they are done nursing and come into estrus.

Bulls may come to blows when one challenges another and doesn’t back down. They fight by bumping chests and tearing at each other with their teeth.

As tempting as it is to get a close-up view of the pups with a drone, don’t do it. It could startle the seals and separate mothers from pups. Maternal-pup separation is the most common cause of pup death. Amateur use of drones is prohibited in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in which the Piedras Blancas rookery is located.

If you witness someone using a drone or otherwise harassing the seals, tell an FES docent or email the office at fes@elephantseal.org. Their trained volunteers are the eyes and ears of enforcement.

Christine Heinrichs’ column appears the fourth Thursday of each month and is special to The Cambrian.

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