Cambrian: Opinion

It’s pup season at the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas

With more than 20,000 seals, Piedras Blancas is largest elephant seal rookery on Earth

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is the largest mainland rookery of its type in the world, and is home to more than 20,000 seals on the coast of California.
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Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery is the largest mainland rookery of its type in the world, and is home to more than 20,000 seals on the coast of California.

The first pup at the elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas was born Dec. 9, followed by two more a week later. Every day for the next two months will bring new births. Over 5,000 will be born during the season.

Seeing a pup born is an experience to treasure. I stood with a group over a seal who seemed ready to deliver her pup any minute the other day, but she didn’t while I was there. Visitors are welcome to stay as long as they like. Bring a chair and settle in. Be patient. Observe other seal interactions as you wait with the mother.

As bulls arrive on the beach, the change ripples through the colony. Sometimes it’s subtle, a bull raising his head and shifting position. Sometimes it’s dramatic, sparking a bull to chase the new arrival back into the surf, or spark a fight.

Pregnant females may cause less change, but the seals often push back. Mothers may defend their pups, and chase other mothers away.

Seals don’t give clear indications when they are going to have their pups. 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 to be 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, all part of the coastal ecosystem.

One section of the south beach at the viewpoint has been the maternity ward for several years.

One female landed south of that section, then humped her way across the sand to locate near other mothers. Whether they take comfort from each other, or find protection in a group of mothers and pups, no one yet knows.

One visitor, a rancher from Wyoming, watched the seals as he does his herd, encouraging the mothers to go ahead and have their pups before they grow any bigger.

One newborn hadn’t nursed yet, and the crowd cheered him on. He was pointed toward his mother’s head, rather than the teats. She turned, and rolled over on her belly, making them unavailable. She turned on her side again, and he made his way to her and connected. Dry sucks at first, then we could all see the milk flowing. One more step toward a healthy pup.

Check on the seals from home by looking at the web cam at elephantseal.org. Webmaster Brandt Kehoe is working to keep it focused on the action. Seals move in and out of the frame.

High surf has inundated the beach. Pups can’t swim well when they are born. They lack the blubber and endurance they will need to survive in the ocean. King Tides in December and January may threaten the pups. It’s a dangerous world for seals.

Christine Heinrichs’ column on elephant seals is special to The Cambrian.

Get away from the crowds and check out the elephant seals on this easy hike along the Piedras Blancas cliffs.

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