On Tuesday, Dec. 17, I was on docent duty at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal viewing area in the afternoon. When I arrived, the morning shift person said that there was a pregnant seal on the beach that might be in labor. I was happy to think that I might view the first birth of the season at the site, and I had even brought my camera, just in case.
The seal was pretty quiet, but now and then she did things that we have come to consider signs of impending birth. She was restless, moving around often and sometimes arching her neck, stretching her head into the air and making sounds. And then she would just relax and remain still — for a long time.
I watched her as I spoke to visitors and pointed out to them that they might want to keep an eye on her. I was pretty sure that we would see a pup before my three-hour shift ended. But it didn’t happen, and I should have known better because many times in the past I have waited, left, and been told the next day, “Right after you left the pup was born.”
But this time, the pup wasn’t born until around noon the next day. So the birthing season had started. There were still only a few females on the beach at that point, and the huge males were still bellowing, posturing and sometimes fighting to establish dominance over an area of the beach.
By now the territories should be pretty well defined, as more females arrive and settle down near a dominant male. And there will be more pups. In the coming weeks the beach will likely become covered with seals. Each alpha male will have 30 to 40 females in his harem.
The mother nurses her pup for about a month and then goes into estrus and mates. She doesn’t eat while birthing and nursing and can lose as much as 20 pounds a day while producing the rich milk that can get up to 60 percent fat by the end of the nursing period. Her pup can gain up to 10 pounds a day before it is suddenly weaned, not knowing how to swim or eat. It lives off that fat reserve while it teaches itself to swim.
During January, it’s possible to see a pup being born, a highlight of a visit to the viewing site. Friends of the Elephant Seal also has a web cam installed on the end of the boardwalk at the south side of the parking lot, so some of the action on the beach can be seen from afar.
I was lucky enough to open to the cam from my home computer one morning last winter and watch a pup being born. Later in the season I saw some bloody fights as the males began vying for mating rights. (The web address is www.elephantseal.org.)
This is the beginning of the dramatic season of birthing. At other viewing sites, this time is off limits to the public, but the secure boardwalks at Piedras Blancas allow visitors to view the seals’ big show without disturbing them, and they can understand what’s happening by speaking with knowledgeable docents.