Cambrian: Opinion

Elephant seal pups prepare to embark on their first ocean journeys

The beach at Piedras Blancas breathes a sigh of relief after the strum und drang of the breeding season. Weaned pups bark at each other and venture into the water to cavort in their pup-like way. The last few tired adult males finish resting before returning to the sea to feed.

Pups start life gaining weight rapidly. That ends abruptly after a month, when the mothers leave to forage in the open ocean. The pups’ metabolism changes, from building blubber to converting it to muscle and energy. They are sleeping, but there’s a lot going on.

Nearly all have molted the black coat that covered them at birth. They now have counter-shaded coats, dark on their backs and light on their bellies. It’s a marine camouflage that helps conceal them from predators. They melt into the dark background of the deep sea to predators above them looking down. Predators coming up from below see the lighter belly against the light of the surface.

Weaners spend March mastering the skills they’ll need in the ocean: swimming and diving. Watch them practice holding their breath in shallow water, and curving their bodies to dive and return to the surface. I watched one dart across the shallow surf toward a pelican paddling just outside the surf line. As soon as he got close, he turned on a dime and swam away as fast as he could. Those padding feet must have intimidated him!

As pups mature, the ocean calls them to their first migration. A few may reach destinations as far north as the Aleutians. Most will get as far as they can. Some aren’t able to manage and end up stranded on local beaches. They’re rescued by volunteers from The Marine Mammal Center and brought to the triage center in Morro Bay. From there, they are transported north to the main hospital in Sausalito.

2016’s El Niño conditions resulted in mothers that were not in good condition, giving birth to smaller pups that then weaned at low weight. It was an Ellie-pocalypse for TMMC, which rescued 234 elephant seal pups. After treatment and rehabilitation, 133 of them were strong enough to be released, a record.

Stranded pups are showing up almost daily on local beaches. They are tube-fed at first, to overcome dehydration and starvation. As they recover, volunteers train them to catch and eat fish. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Elephant seal pups can adapt to being fed by humans. It sounds cute, but it’s a death sentence for a seal that needs to compete in the wild.

Rescued pups get an orange tag on their back flippers.

If you find a pup on the beach, back off to a safe distance of 150 feet or so. Call TMMC in Morro Bay at 805-771-8300. The center will monitor the pup for 24 hours or more, depending on the situation and, if necessary, trained volunteers and staff will rescue it safely.

Follow the progress of rescued elephant seal pups on TMMC’s website, http://bit.ly/2neTmJQ.

Christine Heinrichs’ monthly column is special to The Cambrian.

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