Cambrian: Opinion

Dead elephant seal washed up on Piedras Blancas beach a reminder that nature can be cruel

Watch baby elephant seals at Piedras Blancas

The annual return of the elephant seals is underway at Piedras Blancas, California, starting off with pup season and then breeding at the beach on Highway 1 near San Simeon.
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The annual return of the elephant seals is underway at Piedras Blancas, California, starting off with pup season and then breeding at the beach on Highway 1 near San Simeon.

Those small seals will someday be as big as the bulls they sleep beside on the beach in August. Juvenile seals are returning to the rookery at Piedras Blancas from their migration for the “Fall Haul-Out.”

Elephant seals have two migrations each year, as far as 5,000 miles each time. The adult bulls have occupied the beach during the summer months, molting their skin and resting. They return to the ocean to forage and gain weight to get them through the breeding season. They will have bulked up with blubber when they return in December.

The young seals showing up on the beach will dominate Piedras Blancas through the fall months then haul out onto the sand and spend six to eight weeks resting.

First-year survivors

The smallest seals are the “Young of the Year,” the pups that were born during the previous breeding season. Only about half survive the first migration. Those that don’t return were either eaten by predators or unable to catch enough food to survive. These returning seals may be no larger than when they left as weaners, but they have survived. Any seal that arrives on the beach for the haul-out is a survivor.

Even on their first migration, pups are able to dive as deep as 4,000 feet. We don’t know how they find their way north to hunt fish and squid along Canada’s west coast. Some get as far north as the Aleutians, where the adult males feed.

The boardwalks provide excellent viewing for visitors, keeping them safe from the seals and vice versa. Young seals may look cute, but they have sharp teeth and are unpredictable. Even newly weaned pups can give a nasty bite. Think of a 500-pound dog lunging at you. ‘Nuff said.

Beach scavengers

The carcass of a dead bull washed up on the beach in August. He didn’t die on the beach, so no one knows what killed him. The turkey vultures and gulls set to work cleaning it up, and it has since been washed away.

Condors have been released in San Simeon. The Piedras Blancas elephant seals could be a food resource for them. Condors are obligate scavengers, meaning they eat only animals that are already dead. They don’t kill anything.

In 2012, when a dead gray whale washed up, condors came from miles around to eat it. At the time, condor biologists weren’t sure where all the condors had gone.

“It was scary,” said Ventana Wildlife Society wildlife biologist Joe Burnett. “They disappeared. We hiked out to find them feeding on the gray whale carcass. They fed on it for six months. It was the party spot. That was the first time anyone witnessed condors feeding on a whale since Lewis and Clark.”

All the San Simeon condors are tagged.

United Nations of Piedras Blancas

Summer visitors are international. Overheard conversations sound like the United Nations. The live webcam allows them to show their friends back home the wildlife spectacle of California’s elephant seals. One young visitor from London told me she plans to write a report for school and astonish her classmates.

Christine Heinrichs is a certified California Naturalist who writes about wildlife.

For many years, elephant seal “bachelors” have rested periodically at the Hearst San Simeon State Park, taking a break from the winter breeding-and-birthing melee at the rookery 4.3 miles to the north.

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