Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Newborn confusion

Mothers and pups sometimes get confused on the beach. It happened Monday, when three mothers contended over four pups. None of the visitors witnessed the births, so we observers were as confused as the seals.

My guess was that the missing mother was about ten feet away. A female was sleeping just beyond the group. The large reddish spot on the sand suggested that a birth had recently happened there, and she was the likely mother.

Two of the mothers barked and threatened each other. The third quietly tended to two pups. The bright sunshine causes sharp shadows that make this photo difficult to decipher. Here one of the mothers barks at a pup, while her rival tosses sand on her back.

All four of the pups were very new, and I didn't see any of them nursing. The two pups affiliating with the quiet mother were sociable toward each other, nosing each other companionably.

The beach isn't terribly crowded yet, but this group managed to get their signals crossed. I don't know whether anyone has every documented switched pups. It seems like something that could happen, without ill effects. So long as a pup gets care and adequate milk, it wouldn't be important that it be from its biological mother. Last year lots of mothers nursed other pups after theirs died in winter storms.

We'll see how the season progresses. Few females have chosen to settle on the north end of the rookery, where the beach has eroded.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

First pup born!

The first pup of the season was born Friday, December 10. That's early. Usually the first birth is closer to Christmas. He or she arrived fine and healthy, though. This one was born this morning, December 18. The mother appears confident and calm. She's within a few feet of the beachmaster. Subadult males and juveniles are still on the beach, but they aren't bothering her.
The pup is still attached to the afterbirth by its umbilical cord. A gull comes over.

The gull takes a taste --
then the whole flock comes over to clean it up.

This morning's visitors were excited and thrilled at the new baby, despite today's rain. Visitors are always at the bluff, eager to see what's going on.

Weather is harsh, rainy and windy. The pups don't have much body fat, blubber, when they are born. They gain weight fast, but they appear vulnerable to cold and wet at the start.

I'm in between holiday travel, but will post as news trickles in. One of the events I attended was the National Geographic Marine Recreation Community Workshop in Monterey, http://ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/. They invited people who are involved in ocean-related work in the community to partner with them in educating the public about the oceans. Speakers included Dan Costas, who leads marine animal research and is a co-founder of TOPP, http://www.topp.org/; Jim Covel, senior manager of Guest Experience Training and and Interpretation at Monterey Bay Aquarium; Gary Grigggs, a researcher on coastal issues; Bridget Hoover, director of the Water Quality Protection Program; Lisa Lurie, Agriculture Water Quality coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary; Barton Seaver, chef and ocean advocate; and Tierney Thys, an expert on the ocean sunfish and all-around ocean expert.

The site has lots of the amazing photos that National Geographic is known for. This Frilled Shark lives as far as 5,000 feet deep. It's one of the critters that elephant seals know about but we don't. This one, which is almost five and a half feet long, was captured off Japan in 2007 and lived in captivity only a short time.

The opportunity to get all these wonderful people in one room at the same time was the best Christmas present I could have had. Every one of them was inspired and inspiring. I learned from all of them. I felt a whoosh of power in that room. Lifeguards, rangers, dive shop operators, whale-watching boat captains, Monterey Bay advocates of all kinds, and me, represented the elephant seals -- what a perfect way to reach more people who want to learn about the oceans and do better.

One of the phrases that stuck with me was, "You are now a citizen of Planet Ocean." I'm going to start telling bluff visitors that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Monterey Marine Protected Area Updates

Danielle Brown, administrative assistant at the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Foundation sent out this news on marine protected areas.

First, two MPAs already in effect in the north central and central coast regions have undergone status changes. These changes demonstrate the evolving nature of this growing network of MPAs along California’s coastline. In the north central coast region, part of the Stewarts Point State Marine Reserve (SMR) has been set aside as the Stewarts Point State Marine Conservation Area (SMCA). The change to this MPA was made in response to concerns raised by abalone divers and other user groups. This decision demonstrates the adaptive management strategy that governs the California network of MPAs whereby future management plans are informed by real-time issues. The Stewarts Point SMCA now allows the take of specific marine species from shore. For more information please view the complete guide to MPAs of the north central coast, http://californiampas.org/pubs/nccmpas_guide.pdf.

In the central coast region, the State Parks Commission made the decision to redesignate the Cambria SMCA as a State Marine Park (SMP). This change provides additional protection on top of the initial California Department of Fish and Game’s designation, now all commercial extractive activities are prohibited. Here is an updated map of the central coast MPAs with this SMP change incorporated, . Second, earlier this month, the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF) unanimously voted to forward a single, community-based MPA proposal for the north coast to the California Fish and Game Commission (FGC) for approval. The MPA proposal, developed by the 33-member north coast regional stakeholder group (NCRSG), will be presented in Sacramento to the FGC in February 2011. The north coast community should be congratulated for their collaboration and on reaching consensus on the proposal. To read more about this phase of the MLPA, please go here. http://californiampas.org/pubs/CA_CC_MPA_Poster_4MuseumExhibit_newLogo.jpg.

For more information, contact Danielle at 299 Foam Street, Suite D, Monterey, CA 93940 danielle@mbnmsf.org

Friday, December 10, 2010

California Conservation Corps

Here's the California Conservation Corps team, http://www.ccc.ca.gov/Pages/default.aspx, that built the new trail overlooking the north beach at the Piedras Blancas Viewpoint. They did a great job. Mike Anderson, in the light tan shirt at left, is the project manager. The trail required some special engineering to cope with water running off Highway 1 and from the ranch on the east side of the highway. All these young people learned a lot from working on this project.
It was funded by the California Coastal Trail grant program of the California Coastal Conservancy and money from the National Park Service Land and Water Conservation Fund. Read more: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2010/12/06/1396919/a-new-view-of-the-elephant-seals.html#ixzz17k8D1ADI.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


This young seal was playing with a piece of seaweed on the beach today. Play is rare among elephant seals. Life is serious business to them. Their behavior is generally pretty focused on the practical activities that they need to survive. But this one took some time for light-hearted play.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Return from the North

Adult males are starting to arrive at Piedras Blancas! It's the time of year when they return to the beach and start dividing it up among them, the better to greet the females when they arrive in late December.

It's the beginning of the season, so this bull, who arrived last week on the south end of the beach, may yet move on to another rookery. An adult male arrived Sunday on the north end of the beach but was gone the next day.

So much of the sand was washed away in last winter's storms, there is little beach left above the high tide line at the north end. Whether females will choose it for their pups remains to be seen. This vista shows high tide Monday 22 November. It was a high tide that day, the full moon, but not as high as it might be. Even so, the water comes right up to the base of the cliffs.

That's not an issue for these juveniles, fat and well-developed. The pups can be washed out to sea.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Beach changes

Lots of elephant seals, mostly juveniles, are on the beach. More seem to be arriving. The new trail opens up more viewing area at the north end. One rested on his back under water, showing his light belly under a foot or so of water.

One small female gave birth to an undersized pup, a fetus really, which did not survive. There were a few early births last year. Even the ones that are large and apparently fully developed don't survive when they are born outside the usual season. I don't know whether anyone knows anything about these early births.

One day after the new moon, the tide was high today, although not as high as it will be during the winter. There's hardly any beach above high tide line at the north end. I'm concerned about any mothers who arrive on that beach at low tide to have their pups. They probably won't survive. We'll see how the season progresses.

In the docent training last weekend, USGS Wildlife Biologist Brian Hatfield asked docents to report all shark wounds and scars. He said he has expected to see an increase in shark attacks, but hasn't documented that. In October, a surfer was killed by a shark about a hundred miles south of Piedras Blancas, at Vandenberg, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39800366.

These Royal Terns are still enjoying life on the beach, too. A few Heerman's Gulls are there, as well. I didn't see the rare Ivory Gull reported at Pismo Beach to the south, http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2010/11/08/1361991/ivory-gull-san-luis-obispo-county.html.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Southern Elephant Seals are helping map the ocean floor in Antarctica, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn19687-surveyor-seals-reveal-secrets-of-antarctic-depths.html?DCMP=OTC-rss&nsref=environment.

Daniel Costa, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, glued electronic depth sensors onto the heads of 57 elephant seals and tracked their movements in the Bellingshausen Sea off the Antarctic Peninsula between 2005 and 2009.
"Seals are ideal because they go places where no one else has gone, and they don't need a battery to drive them," says Costa.
Thanks to this research team for your work and your partners, elephant seals!

Monday, November 1, 2010


Danna Staaf, who received her Ph.D. for her studies in reproduction and early life of Humbolgt Squid, or, as she puts it, squid sex and babies from Stanford University earlier this year, came to Cambria to tell Friends of the Elephant Seal docents about them. Humboldt Squid are a favorite food of Elephant Seals.

She calls herself a 'cephalopodiatrist,' http://cephalopodiatrist.com/

Here we are snapping squid beaks at each other. I learned a lot I didn't know about squid: that they hatch from eggs, about the size of a grain of rice when they start. She had some microscopic video of these tiny babies. They have chromatophores on them even when they are that small, the color cells that allow squid to change color instantaneously, http://tolweb.org/accessory/Cephalopod_Chromatophore?acc_id=2038. I was fascinated by the organs, changing color on this tiny organism. They grow from that tiny start to full size, four feet or larger, in a year. Like elephant seals, they are difficult to research because they live deep in the ocean.

Significantly for elephant seals, Humboldt Squid migrate down in the water column during the day, about 300 meters, 1,000 feet, to a low-oxygen zone where most of their predators can't hunt them. Fish such as tuna need lots of oxygen in the water.

Elephant seals, on the other hand, get oxygen from the air they breathe, so they are not limited by the amount of oxygen in the water. That would make for good hunting for elephant seals. It's a question some researcher may even now be designing a study to investigate.
Thanks for coming to Cambria, Danna! And sharing what you know about squid with us.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Drying up the path

The CCC crew, http://www.ccc.ca.gov/Pages/default.aspx, that built the new trail got some additional gravel and filled the holes in the path Monday. Very welcome, as they were full of water, making the path one deep puddle after another. Thanks!

I and other elephant seal docents joined the crew for lunch on Tuesday. Sebastian's in San Simeon, http://www.yelp.com/biz/sebastians-store-san-simeon, contributed the crew's lunches. Thanks, Sebastian's! These young people have worked very hard to build a new trail and boardwalk for us and the many visitors to the viewpoint. It was a privilege to sit down and meet them. The supervisor told us this trail was the biggest CCC project he had supervised to date.

Thousands of elephant seals have arrived on the beach. It's crowded in places, but the mood is calm and restful. Even the youngsters who tussle with each other don't seem to take it seriously.

The north end of the beach remains narrow. A lot of sand was washed away in last winter's storms. at high tide on Tuesday, little dry land was left untouched by waves. In the past, there's been plenty of room for pups to be born and grow to be weaned. I'm concerned for any pups born on that end of the beach this year.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Glorious Fall day

Does it get any better than today? Sunny but not too warm, light breeze, thousands of seals on the beach. It's a high tide today, just after the New Moon. Even though, it's easy to see how much of the beach remains above the high tide line. They seemed to catch the Fall spirit.

Most rested, some young males sparred. More continued to arrive.

Elephant seals raise their flippers to cool off, the way elephants use their ears. Blood circulates and cools down, helping them stay cool in the sun. They are good at retaining heat under their blubber. Their bodies have fewer ways of dispersing heat, something they need on land but not under water.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Fall Haul-Out

The females and juvenile males return to the beach for a four- to six-week rest in September and October. More seals arrive every day.

These youngsters look healthy and content.

European travelers continue to account for half the visitors, but lots of Americans are taking a fall vacation, too. A nice couple from Florida told me about their experiences with manatees on Monday. Those pups are gentle enough to pet, they said.

The bluff is a great place for bird-watching as well. These Elegant Terns are migrants from Southern California at this time of year. They congregate with the gray Heerman's Gulls, migrants from Mexico, and the resident California Gulls.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The sun is out!

California has been under a very hot high pressure weather system, and Piedsras Blancas has not been spared. On Monday September 27 there was a cool breeze, but the sun was very intense. It's hard on all of us, marine mammals and humans. Temperature records have been exceeded, http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2010/09/28/1305846/san-luis-obispo-county-tries-to.html. It was 105 in Cambria, where we complain if it gets over 80. Some clouds have moved in today, but our outdoor thermometer is reading 98.

Worse news is that otters on the Central Coast are suffering from a bacterial infection. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Now it turns out that some of these playful marine mammals are also being poisoned by an ancient microbe — a type of cyanobacteria — that appears to be on an upsurge in warmer, polluted waters around the world.The discovery was made by Melissa Miller, a state wildlife veterinarian and scientific sleuth investigating the multitude of things killing otters faster than they can reproduce. The Southern Sea Otter population has dropped for two years in a row, the U.S. Geological Survey announced last month. An estimated 2,711 otters remain in Central and Southern California waters.

This beautiful picture was taken by Lawrence Ho of the LA Times.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Foggy fall

Actually, it's been a foggy summer. John Lindsey, meteorologist for Pacific Gas & Electric, attributes that to the cool water conditions of La Nina combined with persistent northweseterly winds recorded at Diablo Canyon's meteorological towers, http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2010/09/18/1294247/kelp-enjoying-the-fattest-summer.html. Water temperatures at Diablo have averaged as low as 51 degrees on some days in August. Today, NOAA reports the water temperature at Avila as 55.8 degrees, http://www.nodc.noaa.gov/dsdt/cwtg/cpac.html.

Mr. Lindsey's reports are interesting, but should be viewed with some scepticism. His primary purpose is to advocate for his employer, PG&E.

He ties the winds and cool water temperatures to an increased upwelling that has brought nutrients to the coastal kelp forest, producing exceptional growth in the kelp forest.

Monday was foggy on the bluff. It makes the seals look even more magical.

Juveniles are arriving all the time now for their fall haul-out rest. They take four to six weeks on the beach at this time of year. The young of the year return from their first migration. This mixed-age group of young males tops out with a five-year-old. The development of his elephant-like nose, his proboscis, indicates that's about how old he is.

This youngster surfs up on the beach, somewhat wary at the young male already resting there. They made their peace and the newcomer made his way onto the sand.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Docent training

Friends of the Elephant Seal trains its docents in three weekend sessions in the fall. This year, training dates are October 9 and 23 and November 6.

Sign up before Sunday, September 19, www.elephantseal.org.

I've been invited to become a docent mentor, for which I'll spend Saturday morning in training. New docents spend three sessions on the bluff with an experienced docent: observing and practicing under supervision, getting feedback before facing the public alone.

The training is excellent, all locally developed, since there isn't another program like this. When I talk to people, I'm constantly recruiting new docents. "It's a great way to learn the natural history," I tell them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Elephant Seals in captivity

Elephant seals are deep water animals that spend only part of their time on land. I thought it would be impossible to keep one in captivity. However, another docent found these examples of Southern Elephant Seals being kept in European zoos. The film is of Goliath, who was sent from Hamburg to visit the Basel, Switzerland zoo in 1938: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUFe8iL_E34.

He translates the description of the film as:

He was sent by train in a 20 cubic meter crate. It took two days from Hamburg to Basel. He was only there for a visit, but became a big attraction. He weighed in at around 3 tons, was 4 meters in length, and ate 50 kilos of herrings a day while in Basel. You will see him "catching" a few from his trainer in the video. It took 10 men, some winches and a tractor to transfer him from train to wagon to zoo.

This photo was taken in 1975 in the Berlin Zoo. The caption translates into: You don't get to do a tooth check without a bribe of some sort!

In this picture, Roland V gets a 'snowmassage' from his keeper in the Berlin Zoo. It isn't dated.
These photos are remarkable -- for the familiarity the humans have with the seals, and for the fact that the seals survived at all, apparently healthy and content. I plan to research this further and see what I can learn.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Pinedorado Parade

Pinedorado is the major holiday weekend in Cambria. The story is that, like Brigadoon, Cambria is replaced once a year with another town, mythical Pinedorado. The parade on Saturday morning kicks off the events.

Every local group, some informal ones created for the occasion, has an entry. I marched with Friends of the Elephant Seal. We assembled at the end of the parade route so that Charmaine Coimbra could take this picture. She posted a series at http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=121752935562&ref=ts#!/album.php?aid=207745&id=183449522622&fbid=424131627622&ref=mf.

I liked the Kelptics, left in a photo from the Tribune, http://www.sanluisobispo.com/2010/09/04/1276394/photos-pinedorado-days-begin.html. They created musical instruments from trumpet mouthpieces and kelp. Who Knew?
The Dancing Dogs, who trotted along beside their owners, stopped periodically to dance on their hind legs with their companions. The Friends of the Library pushed carts of books.
More than 60 organizations participated. FES docents always get applause and thanks. We hope it's also a recruiting tool for new docents. Training is in October and November, in time to get informed docents out on the bluff before the breeding season starts in late December.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Sunny daze

This attractive female and impressive male both arrived on the beach today. Their wet skin shines in the sun. Both look healthy and well nourished.

They appeared to arrive separately, but as soon as they were on the beach, they began to interact. The male moved closer, and the female retreated. Another female who had been on the beach all morning moved away from the bull, too.

The rest of the juveniles rested on the beach, from the dunes to the water's edge. It was warm and sunny, so they tossed a lot of sand on themselves.

Several visitors expressed concern that this mature bull was dead. He isn't, and helpfully wriggled around periodically to reassure the anxious. It's easy to understand how people think so, and how they often reported dead seals back in the 1990s, when the seals first started coming to Piedras Blancas.
I usually tell peole, When one of them is dead, it really looks dead.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

No more sewage dumping!

Thank goodness! The federal Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that it intended to ban all dumping of sewage by large cargo and cruise ships in California waters out to the three-mile limit. The state has been requesting the ban for five years.
Regional EPA Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said cruise ships and other vessels dump 20 million gallons of sewage off California's coast each year, which ends up fouling beaches and bays.
Some cruise ships can hold 6,000 passengers, so a lot of sewage can be dumped from just one vessel. The refuse ends up being jettisoned into the sea, and if close enough to shore can affect water quality at beaches, leading to closures. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/26/epa-bans-cruise-ships-fro_n_695269.html
At least elephant seals won't have to swim through sewage on their migrations. Thank you, EPA.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Youngsters are arriving

Juveniles are replacing the adult males on the beach. These two followed each other out of the water and onto the beach.

Quite a few have already arrived. They enjoy a brief altercation, then return to a well-earned rest.

A few adule males remain, like this one. We are having a hot spell here, up in the 80s even along the beach. Adapted to cold ocean conditions, heat is more difficult for them to manage. They scoot down to the cool wet sand at the surf's edge and toss sand on their backs to deflect the sun's heat.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


The SS Montebello was sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1941, seven miles off California's Central Coast during World War II. Its tanks were full of three million gallons of Santa Maria crude oil. If it hasn't already leaked out, the California Department of Fish and Game is trying to keep it contained.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute sent its robotic submarine down to the wreck, 900 feet down, last week to take sonar images. Researchers and F&G scientists hope the images will help them determine what condition those old tanks are in, and how to keep the oil from getting into the water. In this picture, MBARI's mapping AUV is prepared for launch from the research vessel Zephyr by Senior Research Specialist Dave Caress. Image credit: Duane Thompson © 2005 MBARI

“Although it is still uncertain whether or not the 3 million gallons of oil loaded onto the vessel before its departure on Dec. 23, 1941 remain in its tanks, we aren’t taking any chances,” said Steve Edinger, Administrator for the Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) in a press release. “We are taking proactive steps to determine if there is a pollution threat and, if so, to prevent an oil release that could impact California’s coastal areas.”

The Montebello Assessment Task Force commissioned the sonar survey to determine if the Montebello poses a pollution risk to California marine waters and coastal habitat. The task force was convened in 2008 at the request of Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee and includes representatives from OSPR, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research
Institute (MBARI) and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee’s (R-San Luis Obispo) Office. OSPR has provided $100,000 in funding from its Oil Spill Prevention and Administration Fund for this and other research on the Montebello. The task force is working with federal agencies to secure additional funding for the project.

The sonar images will help the scientists understand the sea floor conditions on which the wreck rests. How stable it is, what it's like down there, will be used to plan two more remotely-operated vehicle dives to the wreck, planned for summer and fall 2011. The ROV on those dives will record video of the wreck, which will be compared to videos taken in 1996 and 2003, to see how the sunken ship is deteriorating. It will also take samples from the cargo tanks, to see whether there's any oil left in them.

The upper portion of this image shows a vertical sonar image of the wreck of the S. S. Montebello, along with lines indicating the path that MBARI's seafloor mapping AUV followed while surveying the wreck. The lower portion shows a "cross section of the stern of the S. S. Montebello, with each dot indicating a single sonar "ping." Image credit: © 2010 MBARI

MBARI's autonomous underwater vehicles were sent down on three days for the sonar images. They are programmed at the surface, then sent below to scan the area with sonar and record the results. Back at the surface, researchers apply the specially designed software to create the images.

MBARI’s seafloor-mapping AUV carries three different types of sonar, which send brief pulses of sound toward the seafloor, then measure how quickly and how intensely these sound waves are reflected back to the vehicle.

Sidescan sonar yields a black-and-white image of the ocean bottom that shows how strongly sound is reflected. Sidescan sonar can show areas of hard and soft seafloor, as well as hard objects such as the wreck.

Multi-beam sonar can be used to create a detailed bathymetric map or a three-dimensional image of the seafloor (and hopefully the wreck as well).

Sub-bottom profiling sonar can indicate the density of layers of rock or sediment beneath the seafloor.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Youngsters are arriving

Quite a few adult and subadult males on the beach, but the juveniles are arriving.
They are showing their light-colored bellies in this picture.

A couple of males occasionally wake up and spar for a few rounds, but not much comes of it. It's not serious fighting at this time of year, since it's not the breeding season.

Crowds of visitors, many from other countries, are amazed at the sight. These bulls are still molting.