Some of us like to think that we are pretty knowledgeable about the commonly seen species of marine mammals. We know that elephant seals come ashore eight miles north of San Simeon, that you can usually find sea otters at San Simeon Cove, and that harbor seals haul out on the rocks along Moonstone Beach Drive.
Noisy and sociable, California sea lions climb on to docks and buoys in Morro Bay and Avila Beach. For quadruple marine mammal watching delight, all four species can often be observed around the offshore rocks at Point Piedras Blancas (whales get extra points, of course).
Two other species, the northern fur seal and the Guadalupe fur seal, are rare in this part of the Pacific, but because of the offshore El Niño conditions, they are here in record-breaking numbers.
Fur seals are named for their thick, dense fur, which can have as many as 300,000 hairs per square inch. Males can reach 7 feet in length and weigh 350 pounds. With their dark brown coat, silvery neck fur and aggressive attitude, Europeans first called them “sea bears.”
Fur seal pelts were made into overcoats and hats from the mid-1700s to early 1900s. Once believed extinct, fur seals are now protected, and their numbers are slowly recovering.
Fur seals occur throughout much of the world’s oceans, and are distinguished by region. The two species coming onto our beaches now are the northern fur seal and the Guadalupe fur seal. Both belong to the family of “eared seals,” and have long, hairless front and hind flippers. Pups are born on islands off the coast of central and North America in June and July. By this time of year they have left for the open ocean to feed on fish.
In a normal year, cold water off the coast of South America is nutrient-rich, supporting huge quantities of plankton, the primary food source for marine ecosystems.
This year’s warm waters associated with El Niño have forced the fur seals to travel farther north, seeking colder waters and food. But young pups can only travel so far before starvation and exhaustion force them ashore.
The Marine Mammal Center is one of the few marine mammal rescue organizations in the US. Throughout its 40-year history, records have been kept of all the marine mammals they treated. This year, they have treated 31 malnourished Guadalupe fur seals, compared with a record of five in 2003. More than 90 northern fur seal pups have been rescued, double the previous record.
Fur seal pups are “small, furry and feisty,” says Dr. Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science at The Marine Mammal Center.
Michele Roest is a biologist and naturalist with a lifelong love for San Luis Obispo County. Her column is special to The Cambrian.
If you see a pup
If you observe a marine mammal pup on the beach, it is best to let the Marine Mammal Center volunteers properly assess and rescue it. Call (415) 289-7325. Be ready to provide accurate information on where you observed the animal. To see more photos of fur seal pups, visit the Marine Mammal Center website at www.marinemammalcenter.org