Cambrian: Opinion

Peeling elephant seals aren't pretty, but they're perfectly normal

An elephant seal who’s halfway through its molting is brown on the bottom end and gray on the top.
An elephant seal who’s halfway through its molting is brown on the bottom end and gray on the top.

Tattered and torn.

That’s what the adult male elephant seals that are on the beach now look like. Their molting skin is peeling off. It looks awful, but it’s normal.

The adult males return to the beach for a month or so of quiet time in July and August, while they get their new skin for the coming year.

The old skin is brown, contrasting with the pearly gray new skin underneath.

Their skin keeps its scars, so senior seals continue to display their battle history.

Molting skin all at one time, called a catastrophic molt, is unusual for mammals. Snakes peel their skin off to grow, and some insects and crustaceans split their outer skin off, but seal skin just falls off in pieces.

Visitors often ask whether the seals are rubbing their skin off with sand. I’ve never seen a seal do that. They toss sand on their backs, but that’s a way to regulate temperature.

These seals are comfortable in very cold water. They are deep divers, foraging at 1,000 feet deep and more, in the icy waters of the North Pacific. They are warm-blooded mammals and their blubber insulates them against the cold.On the beach, they heat up in the sun, even on cloudy days. The sand gives some protection from the sun.

Summer is the low point for the number of seals on the beach, but that’s relative. There are seals on the beach year-round.

In July and August, the adult males are here, the ones with the big nose (technically, proboscis) that gives them their name. There are lots of them out there, especially at the north end.

Friends of the Elephant Seal posts a sign in the parking lot, directing visitors to the best place to see the seals that day. Seals are always coming and going.

Younger seals of both sexes are migrating and foraging in the open ocean now.

They’ll return to the beach in the fall for a few weeks of rest.

The pregnant female seals are at sea, foraging for food to grow their pups. They left the beach after they molted their skin in May and June.

They’ll return to the beach in December and January to give birth to their pups.

Friends of the Elephant Seal docents who staff the site have samples of elephant seal skin you can touch — ask to see it. They are easily recognizable in their blue jackets. Docents are stationed at the site year-round.

Becoming a docent is a great way to learn about local natural history. Training is free, coming up on Sept. 13, Oct. 11, 18 and 25. Docents serve four three-hour sessions each month.

For more information and to register for the 2014 training sessions, call 924-1626 or use the online docent application: http://www.elephantseal.org/Friends/docent_application.html.

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