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Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jan 28, 2016

evelynevandersande_mugI typically write about local fauna and flora, but sometimes something really incredible happens not too far away, and I just want you to be aware of it.

Valentine’s Day is not only a time for chocolate and flowers; it is also mating and baby time for elephant seals. It’s one the most amazing sights to witness. People go around the globe to see baby whales or lions’ pups, but we have such a show almost at our doorstep – an event worth being covered by National Geographic.

From the Santa Clarita Valley, it is a few hours away by car – an easy trip you can make in one day.

Go to Cambria, and then take California Highway 1 north of Hearst Castle for about 4.5 miles. The elephant seal rookery is on the left side of the road and is called Piedras Blancas. The parking lot is open, free of charge, and it is wheelchair accessible.

I am not talking about a few seals. You will see what practically looks like a carpet of about 17,000 seals. The number increases every day, as it is the time of birth for many pups. You might even witness such a birth.

sealions01At any time of the year, you can visit and see many of the females and pups, but January and February is the perfect time to see the males in action. And the males are huge, incredibly fat with their enormous dangling nose which reminds us of an elephant trunk. Obviously that is how they got their name, elephant seal.

They are coming south from Alaska, where they gorged on all the food available, but they won’t eat during the three months on Piedras Blancas, devoting all of their time to mating and sleeping.

Sleep – they seem to do plenty of that, lying on the beach like huge slugs. But do not be fooled, and keep looking for a while to try to figure out what is going on. Soon enough, you are going to be able to understand the pecking order of the elephant seals in front of you. You will notice a few gigantic males surrounded by many females, their harem.

sealions02The first thing a male needs to do when it arrives on the beach is to establish his territory, get settled and conquer a few females. If he is too close to another male, this territory will get challenged and a battle will usually follow. The younger males, challenging the older ones, will often lose the battle and move farther down the beach, looking dejected. Most of the time, the battle takes the form of strong intimidation, with a lot of pushing, screaming at each other, nose to nose, pushing of the chests to try to look more intimidating and taller than the competition.

How is it possible to describe the sounds that come from those enormous trunks and convey this extraordinary loud roaring noise? Maybe a fog horn is a good comparison, but you have to add the sound of anger, frustration and even a desire to kill. Are you getting the idea? Your hair stands on end when two males are fighting. Intimidation is not always enough; two large males of similar size will bite at each other, drawing blood. You can see on their bodies the marks and the scars from previous fights. As they are well padded with blubber, those wounds are not deep and heal quickly.

Now, let’s go to the females and the pups. These babies are the result of fecundation from the previous year, the important activity that is keeping the males busy.

The pregnant adult females are also arriving from their long migration from Alaska. They are coming to this beach to give birth. By the end of February, about 4,000 pups will be born, and the beach will be noisy with the mothers vocalizing with their pups so each one recognizes who is who.

sealions03The pup is about 6o pounds at birth but can gain about 10 pounds each day by drinking the very rich milk from the mother. The beach is really crowded, and sometimes babies get killed when a large male mating with a female does not notice they are in the way. I’ve seen many turkey vultures perched along the beach, ready to clean up the situation and take care of the carcasses when needed.

The mother will nurse for about one month, and she won’t eat during that time. This is one of the reasons why she fattened up in Alaska before her migration.

The pups cannot swim at first, and the mother has to be protective during the strong winter storms and large waves so they do not get separated from their pup.

Why do elephant seals have such a large proboscis, and how does it help them? The males do not leave the beach during the mating season. They have no access to drinking water, and their “trunk” helps them to conserve moisture. Inside, it has all kinds of cavities that catch the moisture from each exhalation, reusing and conserving the moisture, so that helps them while they are stuck on land for two months.

They usually spend 80 percent of their lives in the water. They can hold their breath for 100 minutes and dive in very deep water. They have a large volume of blood with a large proportion of red blood cells, which also helps them to use oxygen so they can stay in cold water for a long time.

sealions04There is much to learn. I am only scratching the surface. Google-search “friend of the elephant seal” to see the questions asked most often of the docents on the beach. They are very knowledgeable and dedicated, and they love to give you all possible information.

So maybe you are dragging your feet … you don’t want to take the road to Cambria because El Nino is going to send us big showers, and you know the elephant seals will still be there next year … do not count on that. Go now. When you do, you’ll learn that in 1990, there were just two dozen elephant seals on this beach. We do not know why more came the following year.

Right now, they can be seen the year ‘round with mostly females taking care of pups at times other than mating season. Now is the best time to see those huge males in action.

We do not really know why they choose this beach at this time, and we cannot assume it will happen every year. Take this incredible opportunity while you have the chance.

Happy Valentine’s Day, and don’t forget to take a warm jacket, as the beach can get windy. But the coast is beautiful and wild. Have fun seeing lovely scenery and learning something new.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.


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1 Comment

  1. Fred Seeley says:

    Very well written. I have visited in January and it truly is a spectacular event. Thanks Evelyne for sharing!

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