Cambrian: Opinion

Storms disrupt elephant seal life at Piedras Blancas

This mother is caring for extra pups. She’s already thin. Pups need enough milk to gain blubber to sustain them until they go to sea and start hunting on their own.
This mother is caring for extra pups. She’s already thin. Pups need enough milk to gain blubber to sustain them until they go to sea and start hunting on their own.

The stormy weather and king tides have disrupted life among the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. Not much beach remains above high-tide line at the north end of the boardwalk. The south end is crowded, and pups get separated from their mothers.

In the confusion, mothers may have two or three pups at their side. Elephant seals give birth only to a single pup, never twins. Any mother with more than one pup has taken on some other mother’s pup.

Mothers don’t eat for that month while they are nursing the pup. They make milk by metabolizing their blubber. Each mother is plump enough to feed one pup, but not more. Additional pups drain her resources faster.

Pups that get separated from their mothers are in serious trouble. Separation is the most common cause of pup death. An inexperienced mother may learn and improve her mothering by taking on another pup, but she won’t have enough blubber to feed two through to weaning. Healthy pups suckle their way to 300 pounds by the time they are ready to be weaned.

Some mothers are willing to foster a pup for a few days, but others chase them away. Mothers whose pups die may adopt a stray, or even attempt to steal a pup from another mother.

Keep an eye out for this kind of interaction when you are at the viewpoint.

Lots of pups are being born on the beach. Many births occur within easy viewing range, but it’s not easy to predict who will have a pup next. Docents try to point out possible nativities, but it’s never a sure thing. Even if a female is contorting herself in ways that suggest she’s straining to give birth, the arrival may be hours away. Look for a female digging out trenches on each side as she shovels sand into the air. Sand flipping is a way seals deal with stress.

Once birth begins, it’s over within minutes. A burst of water as the amniotic sac breaks, then a nose or flipper slips out. Pups may be born head or flippers first.

Listen for squawking gulls to tell when a pup has been born. They swarm around to eat the afterbirth. For them, it’s protein-rich food, part of the biological cycle.

The king tides are the highest tides that occur at each place. They are natural and expected, but exceptional. The most extreme occurred in early January, but extreme high and low tides continue through the month and on into February.

Pups may get washed out to sea during these high tides and rains. The runoff carved chasms 3 feet deep in the sand. Pups aren’t ready to take on the rigors of ocean swimming. They can swim, but they don’t have blubber to keep them warm. I watched one swim back and forth, unable to understand how to come back to the sand.

Despite the challenges, about 95 percent of the pups at Piedras Blancas survive to weaning.

It's birthing season at the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas. Here's a look at what the elephant seals and their pups are up to. Video taken on January 4, 2016.

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

Want to know more?

Friends of the Elephant Seal offers annual Exploratory and Rookery Tours, free Saturday morning seminars on elephant seal life and times. Experts explain what’s going on for 90 minutes and answer questions, then the group heads to the rookery for a tour. With information fresh in mind, you can observe the seals with a more knowledgeable eye. Tour leaders are there to answer more questions that arise.

Meet at 9:30 a.m. for coffee at Cavalier Plaza, 250 San Simeon Ave. in San Simeon. Birthing and nursing are the focus Jan. 28. Mating and Weaning are the subject Feb. 4, 11, 18 and 25. Call 805-924-1628 for more information.

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