The crowds of seals have thinned, leaving pods of weaners gathering along the bluff edges. Some mothers remain, still nursing their pups. Beachmaster bulls keep an eye on those last few, ready to mate one more time.
Typical weaners have nursed their way from their birth weight of about 70 pounds to around 300. They vary — it’s easy to see the difference. Some are much bigger than others. Most are plump and filled out. They don’t have to be fat to survive.
The really big ones are superweaners, They’ve been able to steal milk from other mothers and gain a couple hundred pounds more, achieving superweaner status. Some are so fat, they can hardly move. Being a fatter weaner isn’t a plus. The additional blubber may make it more difficult for them to dive to hunt fish and squid.
Docents sometimes call them Pop Tarts for sharks. Pups make such attractive food for sharks that the increase in elephant seal pups may be responsible for the increase in shark attacks on otters. Sharks may mistake the otters for seal pups, and take a bite. They don’t eat the otter, but the otter is already dead.
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The weaners will all lose some weight before they depart on their first migration in March and April. Their metabolism changes. Nursing pups gain weight as blubber. As fasting weaners, they convert the blubber to muscle and energy. Their blubber will have to support them until they leave the beach and embark on their first migration, when they start finding their own food.
The mothers lose about a third of their body weight nursing their pups. The few remaining on the beech are thin and depleted. The other mothers have already left on their short migration, for two months, after they wean their pups. They will be back in May.
A few adult bulls sleep on the beach, hanging around to mate with the last few females. The males are thin, too. They’ve been on the beach without food for nearly 100 days. They are still big, but lack the bulk they brought with them in December.
Sleeping takes the edge off that long fast.
The Marine Mammal Center rescued its first starving pup of the season Feb. 20.
The volunteers who collected him from Moonstone Beach named him Kickoff, for kicking off the elephant seal pup season. He was taken to the Morro Bay facility for supportive care before being sent north to the main hospital in Sausalito. They bulk him up with seal food and teach him how to eat fish on his own.
If you see a pup stranded on the beach, call The Marine Mammal Center to report it, on the rescue line, 805-771-8300. Don’t go near it or touch it. They are wild animals, and even a starving pup has teeth and can bite. Some carry diseases that humans can catch.
Your report is important and you may be asked to help. The person reporting the stranded animal is usually allowed to name it. Helping save one of these unusual animals is rewarding.
Christine Heinrichs’ column appears the fourth Thursday of each month and is special to The Cambrian.