Tuesday, December 16, 2014

First pup!

This pup was born December 12. That's early. Usually, the first birth is around December 20. He's already a great attraction at Piedras Blancas.
Some of the young males seals approached her, eager to breed, even though she's a month from being receptive to them. The senior bull nearby, apparently sleeping, nevertheless, kept an eye on the situation. She chased them off but he raised an eyelid and looked over, and they settled down.

Soon two other pregnant females joined her in the maternity ward.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rank hath its privileges

This big male seems perfectly content to use the youngsters as a reclining couch.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Changing of the guard

My monthly column for The Cambrian:

Plenty of juvenile seals are still on the beach this week, but the adult male bulls will start arriving any day now. The youngsters, refreshed by a month or more on the beach, will head back into the ocean and leave the beach to the bigger seals.
Two six-year-old seals square off.
Young males, 6 years old and younger, tussle with one another in the water and rest on the beach. They join females, 1 to 3 years old — not yet old enough to breed — on the sand. You can tell how old by how well developed that elephant-like nose is. Five-year-olds are just getting a bend. That bend grows into a noticeable trunk in the following year. It grows throughout the seal’s life, so senior seals have very impressive ones, indeed. Technically, it’s called a proboscis.

November is the calm before the ruckus of the birthing and breeding season. Bigger, older, more experienced bulls soon stake their claims on the beach. Only the most dominant males get to breed, so there’s a lot at stake. Every male wants to be a beachmaster.

Dominance interactions range from displacement to outright battles. The less dominant seal is displaced when he moves away from his more dominant rival. That’s typical. One seal challenges, the other moves away, that settles it. When that doesn’t satisfy the bulls involved, they will battle each other.

Richard Condit, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, has studied Northern and Southern Elephant Seal populations. He estimates there are around 215,000 total Northern Elephant Seals.

He presented his information to Friends of the Elephant Seal docents in November. Counting seals is tricky, but good photos of the Piedras Blancas rookery during January and February, when the pups are being born, help. He counts the females even when he can’t see the pups. Counting the successfully weaned pups is easier.

“They are all just sitting there in a pile waiting to be counted,” he said. “Not many animals will do that.”

FES docents in their distinctive blue jackets are available every day at the viewpoint. Ask them for more information about how many seals there are and how long they live.

Read more here: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2014/11/25/3367727_piedras-blancas-elephant-seals.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Clearing the beach

This big fellow emerged from the waves on to the beach Monday morning with an agenda. He headed right for the younger male who was quietly sleeping there, and chased him right back into the water.
 He's clearly a senior male. That nose grows throughout their lifetime, and he's got a long one.
 The seal in his sights was concealed from my vantage point on the bluff.
 The younger, smaller seals start to scatter.
 The other seal is big, but younger, judging from the development of his nose.
 Maybe six or seven years old.
 He bullies the other along. Seals get out of the way.
 From this photo, they are close in size. But not in dominance!
 And don't come back!
Interestingly, the dominant seal didn't bother staying on the beach. He followed the other seal into the water and didn't come out again during the next hour I watched the beach.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Fur seals

Elephant seals are one of many marine mammals that live along our coast. At this time of year, fur seal pups are stranding and being rescued. The Marine Mammal Center has rescued two in recent weeks.

Northern fur seals breed at San Miguel Island off our coast, with some establishing a colony on South Farallon Island. Pups are born in July. Pups typically remain at sea, some for as long as two years, before they return to their birthplace. They'd usually be nursed until November. These seal pups will be at the center for months until they are mature enough to be released and manage on their own.
NOAA photo
 Northern fur seals are different from elephant seals in many ways. They are eared seals, rather than true seals.Their front flippers are different, the largest in the pinniped world. Their hind flippers can be a quarter of their total body length. They can rotate their hind flippers the way sea lions can. Elephant seals can't do that.

A Steller sea lion pup is also at the center for rehabilitation and return to the wild.  He was rescued in Washington state but sent  to the center for their expert care. Steller sea lions are the largest eared seals. In the California area, they have been delisted due to recovery. 
Jamie King, Alaska Dept of Fish & Game photo

Males can be up to 2,500 pounds. Like elephant seals, males are much bigger than females which weigh around 770 pounds. 

Leo, the pup sent to the Marine Mammal Centet, will also stay there for months until he is large enough and mature enough to live on his own.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Juveniles on the beach

 Plenty of young seals on the beach at this time of year, the juvenile haul-out.
 Some are pretty big, but they are all six years old or younger.
This one is especially cute, snuggle din among his fellows.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Deep Divers

I was intrigued by Blainsville's Beaked Whales after I learned about them in an online class on Marine Megafauna.  That interest inspired me to explore how the whales and the seals that all hunt at great depth live. Whether these animals ever cross paths is unknown. So little is known about beaked whales at all. Certainly this particular group, in the Canary Islands, is no where near Northern Elephant Seals in the north Pacific, but the habitat of other beaked whales overlaps with them.
The paper I wrote follows. Unfortunately, the blog wouldn't allow me to post the illustrative figures.
Deep sea predators hunt in a three-dimensional world that is dark and has few landmarks. Large marine mammals have senses and strategies that allow them to hunt successfully and share the deep ocean. Food isn't evenly spread around, but is concentrated in predictable ways. The deep scattering layer, the benthic boundary layer, and the oxygen minimum layer – these terms will be defined below - all describe zones that attract or aggregate various organisms. Those organisms attract predators that feed on them, and on up the food chain to the top predators.
Down 1,000 feet and deeper, northern elephant seals are only one of the 20 or so mammals feeding in a dark, cold world. Blainville’s beaked whales are one of the others that dive deep to hunt. As cetaceans, they are very different from seals, but the deep ocean is one of the largest ecosystems on earth and offers many ecological niches. Different diving and foraging strategies allow them to exploit various prey.

Although you are familiar with the northern elephant seal, Blainville’s beaked whale is less well known.  This paper will introduce you to Blainville’s beaked whale and compare the foraging behaviors of these two deep diving mammals. 

Blainville’s beaked whale: These small whales are 15 to 20 feet long, weigh 1,800 to 2,300 lbs., and are dark gray or brownish blue, with a small dorsal fin. The males grow tusk-like teeth that point forward. Not much research has been done on these whales, as their small population ranges across oceans where they are hidden from human view. They live in small social groups, three to seven or perhaps as many as twelve individuals. Cookie-cutter sharks often scar adults. Males often have long scratch scars, suggesting violent competitive courtship, but no one knows
for sure. They are usually sighted in waters 1,600 to 3,300 feet deep near deeper chasms.  They use echolocation to find their prey. 

Beaked whales, although considered toothed whales in contrast to baleen whales, have hardly any teeth. Little is known about them. Most research is based on rare examples of carcasses that wash up on beaches.

All deep divers have to balance the amount of energy it takes to dive down and find prey against the amount of nourishment they get from the dive. Prey species in shallow water have a good oxygen supply, move fast and can escape. Species that live deep, in the dark, with less oxygen, move more slowly and are easier to catch. 

Blainville’s beaked whales forage on tropical and sub-tropical continental slopes associated with oceanic islands, submarine canyons and seamounts. They are one of 22 species of beaked whales, several of which reside or migrate along our central California coastline. For this paper,1 the researchers looked at the resident population of whales living around El Hiero in the Canary Islands off Africa.

Whales use echolocation to find their prey in the dark, different from elephant seals that rely on seeing bioluminescent prey or detecting prey movements in the water with their whiskers (vibrissae). Blainville’s beaked whales have two distinctive kinds of clicks to help them succeed: search clicks while they are foraging and buzz clicks in the final stage of capturing the deep-water squid, crustaceans and fish that are their prey.2

To gather information about how the whales hunt, the researchers used tags that recorded the sounds the whales made as they hunted, as well as the time and depth of the dives.

Blainville's beaked whales' dives can be understood in three phases: transport, as the whale dives down to or returns from its hunting depth; search, when it's actually hunting; and “recovery”, the time it spends back at the surface or diving shallowly, between foraging dives. While this approximately 90-minute period is called “recovery”, scientists haven’t yet studied the physiology of the whale during this time. 

Foraging dives for these whales are as deep as 1,600 to 4,400 feet (mean 2,700 feet), and as long
as 23 to 65 minutes (mean 48 minutes). They produce distinct clicks while searching for prey, and change to buzzing as they attempt to capture prey and eat. They dive silently down about 1 to 11 minutes (mean 4 minutes), reaching a depth of 550 to 2,900 feet (mean 1,400 feet) before they start clicking to look for prey.  They spend 9 to 38 minutes hunting (mean 24 minutes), buzzing to catch prey 4 to 53 (mean 27) times and then silently swim back to the surface, taking 9 to 35 minutes to get there (mean 19 minutes).

If the observed dives are typical, these whales are able to catch a days’ worth of food in eight hours of foraging.  They spend a third of their lives performing foraging dives, and only half of that time is spent actually hunting and catching prey. While the hunting phase of the whale’s dive is distinctly marked by its clicks, for the elephant seal it is the horizontal motion, or rapid up and down motion, after a long descent that separates the transit phase of a dive from the hunting phase.
Northern elephant seals range farther and dive deeper in different habitat. They are not considered resident in any part of their range across the northeast Pacific Ocean. Their dives are separated into four types (Figure 5): active-bottom, especially around the deep scattering layer; flat-bottom (ocean floor foraging); drift dives (food-processing/rest), and v-shaped (transit) dives. Transit dives are used to get the seal to and from foraging areas, or between those areas.  Elephant seal dives typically last 20-30 minutes.  Dives up to 2 hours have been recorded. 3 

There are three major ocean zones that are of interest when studying Blainville’s beaked whale.
1.) The Deep Scattering Layer (DSL) is a layer of living organisms, fish and zooplankton so dense that it scatters sound waves used to detect the ocean bottom. These organisms migrate vertically up toward the surface at night and sink down during the day, creating a shifting

depth of what early researchers thought was the ocean bottom. During the day the DSL is a discrete and dense layer, consisting mostly of small (1-6 inches long) organisms, located at depths between 1,300 and 2,600 ft., while at night the more active species in the DSL disperse upwards to forage.  The dives of female elephant seals are observed to follow the elevation of the DSL.  2.) The Benthic Boundary Layer (BBL) extends from the sea floor to some 600 ft. above it.  It holds most of the biomass in abyssal waters (3,300–11,000 ft. depth) and typically comprises species with low locomotor capacity.  Male elephant seals appear to forage the BBL very near the ocean floor.  3.) The Oxygen Minimum Layer (OML) is the zone of lowest oxygen, a limiting factor for aerobic life. The OML is a region usually dominated by organisms with low metabolic rates as an adaptation to the low oxygen concentration in the water.

Deducing from the angle they descend and the depths they hunt, scientists conclude the whales are hunting in two of these major biological areas: the lower part of the DSL, and the BBL.  The whales are able to find prey in both locations, even on a single dive. They are probably hunting for slow species associated with the deeper part of the DSL and along the sea floor. They don't chase their prey far, and are able to catch about 30 per dive. They dive past the fast-moving prey close to the surface and pick up the slower ones deeper down. 

The echoes of the sounds they made allowed the researchers to figure out how far from the bottom the whales were hunting. They begin their echolocation clicking above the DSL and sometimes continue foraging at moderate depths before heading down the continental slope around the island. This kind of steep slope is habitat to rich concentrations of sea floor and open ocean fish and cephalopods. These resident whales have found a stable and abundant resource that gives them a secure ecological niche.

Northern Elephant Seals and Blainville's Beaked Whales are very different critters that inhabit the depths. Whales hunt with echolocation, seals by sight and motion. They forage in different parts of the ocean, but both dive deep to hunt, in a dark, cold environment that is as strange as another planet.  Seals spend much more of their time at sea hunting than do the whales, but it would be interesting to see how the two would compare if an "hours hunting per year" calculation were made.

Recent studies of Cuvier's beaked whales give one of them the record for longest (2 hours 17 minutes) and deepest (almost two miles) mammalian dives.

Although little is known about species such as the Cuvier's beaked whale, initial research finds them in every ocean except the polar ones. Perrin's beaked whale was identified in 2002, and thus far found only along the California coast between San Diego and Monterey.

NES are better researched than any of the rare and elusive beaked whales. The limited research on these whales tends to be in coastal areas, simply because it's more accessible; research could be biased toward coastal populations. Exactly where beaked whales live and how they use their range for feeding, mating and other life cycle activities is largely unknown.
Because they depend on echolocation for social communication as well as foraging, any interference with their ability to echolocate has the potential to disrupt their lives. Increased seismic blasts and sonar use have been associated with beaked whale stranding. Tagging to learn more about whale and seal lives can help find ways to protect them.

Elephant seal docents are experienced ocean and coastal observers. If you find a beaked whale washed up on the beach, report it to The Marine Mammal Center and file a report with the Beaked Whale Resource.


1.       Arranz P, de Soto NA, Madsen PT, Brito A, Bordes F, et al. (2011) Following a Foraging Fish-Finder: Diel Habitat Use of Blainville’s Beaked Whales Revealed by Echolocation. PLoS ONE 6(12): e28353. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0028353, http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0028353
2.       Foraging Blainville's beaked whales (Mesoplodon densirostris) produce distinct click types matched to different phases of echolocation
3.      Condition and mass impact oxygen stores and dive duration in adult female northern elephant seals, J. L. Hassrick, D. E. Crocker, N. M. Teutschel, B. I. McDonald, P. W. Robinson, S. E. Simmons and D. P. Costa, http://jeb.biologists.org/content/213/4/585.full

Cuvier’s beaked whales hold their breath longer, news story, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26743090