Cambrian: Opinion

It’s family drama season on elephant seal beach

An elephant seal mother and her pup cuddle on the beach at Piedras Blancas.
An elephant seal mother and her pup cuddle on the beach at Piedras Blancas. Special to The Cambrian

The scene at the elephant seal viewing site at Piedras Blancas is stunning this time of year. The beach is covered with hundreds of mothers and pups, and the air is filled with sounds of pups yelling to ask their mothers to turn on their sides to let them nurse.

At first glance it looks like a pleasant view of nature in action and, for the most part, it is. But if you look a little longer, dramas, large and small, become apparent. Elephant seals are not the ideal mothers we often see in television nature programs or story books.

The female gives birth to one pup, which weighs from 60 to 80 pounds. The training manuals tell docents that the mother and pup bond right after birth, but some of the seal mothers don’t follow the manual.

Sometimes when a pup is born, a nearby mother or pregnant female appears to think the new pup is hers and will try to steal it or chase the real mother away. The pup is not agile during the first week and can get caught up in the adult seals’ altercations. The result may be that one mother appears to be caring for more than one pup.

This is not good because she has only enough milk to properly fatten one pup enough for it to survive after she mates and leaves a month after birthing. Another result can be that a pup will become separated from its mother and appear orphaned on the beach.

Sometimes a mother will be searching the beach for a pup, calling in the high-pitched voice reserved for her pup. At the same time, a pup may be looking for its mother, crying and hungry. The human visitors who notice all this drama — especially the docents, who know what’s going on — are worried by it all, but must let nature take its course.

On a good day, the mother will find her pup and we can go home happy. And don’t worry if you see a few fat pups without mothers. These are weaned pups — now called weaners — whose mothers have mated and headed out to sea. The weaners’ next step will be teaching themselves to swim.

Other dramas involve the huge alpha males and the younger “teenage” guys. One alpha male will be settled down with about 20 to 40 pregnant females and females with pups around him. The younger males lurk around the edge of the harem and often sneak in and assault a mother or pregnant seal.

The female makes a hoarse cry, hoping to attract the attention of the alpha so that he will chase off the intruder. During the scuffle, pups can be in the way and onlookers worry that they will be squashed or hurt. As we hope that the big guy will get up and give the younger male a threatening look or sound, he may snooze away.

Fortunately, in most cases the alpha will finally rouse up and the other guy will scoot off, but sometimes the alpha will take off after him, gallumphing through his harem of mothers and pups, scattering a few as he goes.

So it’s not all sweetness and cute during the birthing season, but much of the time it is pleasant to see pups nursing and cuddling next to their mothers, and it’s never dull. Visitors are amazed that they can view all of the action so closely from the boardwalks above the beach without disturbing the animals.