Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Pup season in full swing!

Plenty of pups on the beach now! Here's my column on the subject from this week's Cambrian:

December brings the elephant seal bulls to the beach. Splashing and bellowing, they challenge each other and fight to establish who is dominant. The top seals, beachmasters, will get to breed with the females later.
This fellow arrives on the beach.
 These ocean giants started arriving from their feeding grounds in the North Pacific along the Canada and Alaska coast in late November. The pregnant females start arriving in December, landing on the beach one by one. They’ve been feeding and are ready to deliver their pups. The first of the season was born Dec. 12. Several other pregnant females are in the vicinity, a seal maternity ward.
By the time you read this, their pups will be born. More than 5,000 pups were born in the Piedras Blancas rookery last season.

Males challenge each other frequently. Those on the second rung of males, subdominant, loiter around the edges of the herd of females gathered on the beach. Occasionally, one will sneak in along the edge, looking for the main chance. The senior beachmasters maintain order through constant vigilance. Less dominant males annoying the new mothers stay aware of the alpha bull.

When he opens his eyes and gives them the stink-eye, they scatter.

Females will continue to arrive through February. The mothers give birth to their pups on the beach shortly after they arrive. Pups aren’t exactly helpless, but they’re skinny. They nurse avidly, gaining more than 200 pounds in a month. Their mothers don’t eat during that time, so they slim down as their pups fatten.

This newborn gives himself a scratch.
As their motherly duties wind down after about a month of lactation, the females come into estrus (heat) and are receptive to breeding. That’s what the bulls have been waiting for. One by one, the females return to the ocean to eat, gain weight and have another pup next year.

Male elephant seals have occasionally beached themselves on Hearst State Beach at San Simeon Cove, but last year was the first time females came and had their pups there. Females generally return to the same beach to give birth, so they are expected to show up again. San Simeon is a popular beach with humans, so it puts the issue of getting along with wildlife front and center.

The beach is under overlapping jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and California Department of Parks and Recreation. Supervising Ranger Lisa Remington is planning ahead for the arrival of seals on the beach. A male is already in residence at the south end location where four or five females had pups last year.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act is a federal law that prohibits anyone doing anything to harass or harm the seals. State Parks’ codes also protect the seals, and local Parks Superintendent Nick Franco has issued an order to stay at least 100 feet from the seals. The district will post informational signs at Hearst Beach, Arroyo Laguna and the Piedras Blancas motel.

“Those are the places drivers first see the seals,” Remington said. “We want them to know, for the best viewing, just keep going. We’re very proactive about educating the public.”

Remington is recruiting new Elephant Seal Ambassador docents to direct eager visitors to the Piedras Blancas viewpoint, where visitors have a better view. And both seals and people are safer.

“Part of the mission of State Parks is to balance resource protection with recreation,” she said. “The restrictions aren’t arbitrary. Everything goes back to finding that balance.”

Docents will get eight hours of training, scheduled for the first week of January, before going out to meet the public at Hearst State Beach. Cal Poly interns from the Coastal Discovery Center and the Tourism and Recreation Department will join the ranks. Contact Robyn Chase (805) 400-8531 or Robyn.Chase@ parks.ca.gov to sign up. 

Read more here: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2014/12/24/3413467/piedras-blancas-elephant-seal.html?sp=/99/177/183/429/887/#storylink=cpy

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


This mother looks at her newborn. They hadn't quite gotten nursing organized by the time I left on Monday.

Monday, December 22, 2014

High tides

Two seals got into the viewing area last week. Thanks to Susan Garman for sending the photos from the Marine mammal Center Rescue Team. Here's the tv report.
This bull obligingly lies by an interpretive sign.

Difficult for visitors to get out on the boardwalk with this guard in place.

The high tides and lack of sand have made the north part of the beach inhospitable to mothers and pups. This morning, it was completely inundated by waves.
Waves lap against the base of the cliffs, leaving little safe space for pups. Pups can't swim until they are three months old, and are in danger of drowning.

It didn't bother this massive bull, but the female next to him better find a better place to have her pup.

That nose grows throughout his life. He's certainly a senior bull.

At least two new pups have joined the first one, born over a week ago. This sectionof the south beach has remained above the high tide line. The mothers are lying on the ocean side of their pups. I like to think they are protecting them.

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.