The first elephant seal pup was born on the south part of the beach viewpoint at Piedras Blancas on Saturday, Dec. 16. He (or she, hard to tell yet) was joined by two more a few days later. Look for new births daily.
Seals are mammals, and they nurse their pups. These pups are nursing well. They are gaining weight, filling out their wrinkly black skin. They’ll gain 200 pounds or more in the next month.
By the time they get that big, their mothers will be ready to wean them. Mothers don’t eat while they are nursing, so they get really thin. The mother loses about a pound for every pound the pup gains. All that blubber turns into rich, fatty milk.
The pups will need that weight to get through the two or more months they’ll spend on the beach after their mothers abruptly wean them and head back out to sea. The mothers need to regain the weight they lost before their next pup starts to develop.
These pups are safely above high-tide line. That’s important, because pups can’t swim well when they are born. They learn to swim in the months after they are weaned and their mothers have left the beach.
More than 230 adult bulls usually return to Piedras Blancas. Over 5,000 females come to the rookery and have their pups. The rookery extends from the Piedras Blancas Light Station to a mile or so south of the viewpoint.
Your chances of seeing a pup born are good. Be patient. There’s no time limit on visiting, so feel free to bring a chair and a bottle of water. No restrooms, yet; facilities are planned for the future.
Ask a Friends of the Elephant Seal docent, in a blue jacket, to point out likely candidates for the next birth. It’s impossible to predict, but females tossing sand on their backs and looking uncomfortable are probably in labor.
Screaming gulls announce births. Always alert to food, they somehow detect a birth and swoop down to eat the afterbirth. They occasionally steal milk. They are the vanguard of the beach clean-up team. The beach would smell terrible if they weren’t there to clean it up.
Adult bulls vie for dominance. The drama can be subtle — watch the reactions of the other bulls when a big guy arrives on the beach — or brutal. Bulls may bump chests and rip at each other, on sand or chase each other into the ocean. Most dominance interactions are simple: A challenge, followed by one or the other backing down and leaving the scene. It’s easy to tell who dominates who in the elephant seal hierarchy.
As tempting as it is to get a close-up view of the pups with a drone, don’t do it. A drone 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 email@example.com. 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.