Pup season is here as elephant seals return to the beaches of Piedras Blancas.
Birthing season runs from late December to early February, and last year, 5,800 pups were born there.
Pups nurse for four weeks and quadruple their birth weight of about 70 pounds while the fasting adults lose weight. Adult females lose almost twice the amount pups gain during nursing. Adult males can lose almost a ton during this time.
In February, pups are weaned, breeding season peaks in mid-month and the adults head back to sea.
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“It’s the height of activity,” said docent Jami Todd. “You’ll see cubs born, cub playing everywhere left and right, nursing. The bulls are at the height of their activity around Valentine’s Day.”
The cove south of the lighthouse is the nearly perfect nursery. Kelp beds and shallow water discourage great white sharks from attacking close to shore as the pups learn to swim.
Once the young seals exit the kelp beds, life is much more difficult than the sleepy scenes on the beach.
About one in three males will be lost each year, while one in seven of the females dies.
The females forage in the open ocean, while the males tend to forage along the slope of the continental shelf, richer in food sources but patrolled by predators like orcas and sharks.
They will spend up to eight months at sea, traveling as far away as the Gulf of Alaska. The record dive duration recorded by scientists was just over two hours and the deepest over a mile deep.
Almost hunted to extinction, the seals first reappeared at Piedras Blancas in 1990, and the first pup was born in 1992.
The seals were heavily hunted for oil in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and their numbers were reduced to fewer than 50 before the development of kerosene replaced blubber oil hunting.
Elephant seals are now protected, and the population associated with the Piedras Blancas rookery is 25,000, about 10 percent of the total population.
For more information, visit on the local seal colony, visit www.elephantseal.org.