Cambrian: Opinion

Now is the time to watch cute pups at Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery

Spring is quiet on the beach at Piedras Blancas after the excitement of pups born, mothers nursing and adults mating. Most of the adults have left the beach, leaving the weaned pups to their own devices.

North of San Francisco, at Drakes Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore, the seals were making news. The 34-day government shutdown in December and January came at one of the busiest times of the year for elephant seals. The seals took advantage of the absence of rangers, who usually shake tarps at the seals to chase them off the beach to keep it available to human users. Without those flapping tarps, seals moved right in. More than 40 females took the opportunity to have their pups there.

Piedras Blancas is an example of managing this kind of unexpected wildlife phenomenon for the public. After a few years of confusion when the elephant seals first arrived on Piedras Blancas beaches in the 1990s, the county, state and federal agencies worked with private nonprofits to create the Friends of the Elephant Seal docent program that now welcomes and educates visitors.

Rangers at Drakes Beach began giving tours. Thousands of visitors showed up. The Los Angeles Times published a photo of a male and female mating, while visitors snapped photos.

For this season, Drakes Beach is theirs.

Here in San Luis Obispo County, seals have been resting on the beach at San Simeon Cove. No births there this year, but visitors are cautioned to stay at least 100 feet from the seals.

At Arroyo Laguna just south of Piedras Blancas, the windsurfers’ beach is home to lots of seals. With only signs to caution visitors against approaching the seals, many people wander past the signs to be among the seals.

The seals are unpredictable, often bad-tempered and, as top predators, have big teeth. They are protected by law from harassment, which means anything a person does that changes a seal’s behavior.

Local officials aren’t inclined to cite eager visitors for violations, but the seals are dangerous and no one wants someone to be injured when they were trying for their National Geographic moment. Don’t do it. Drive on to the viewpoint south of the lighthouse. Walk the Boucher Trail, which has several additional elephant seal viewpoints.

At Piedras Blancas in March, the pups are gathered in groups, called pods. Piles of fat, comfy weaned seal pups sleep at the protected edges closest to the boardwalk.

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.

They hang out together, taking breaks from sleeping to splash in the surf. They practice holding their breath and work out to build their swimming skills. They’re more likely to be in the water during dawn and dusk and at night, rather than the bright light of midday. They are preparing for their life at sea, where they will hunt at depths that are always dark. In a month or so, they will swim away on their first migration.

Christine Heinrichs’ column on elephant seals is special to The Cambrian.
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune