Friday, May 28, 2010

COSEE workshop

I was invited to participate in a workshop on concept mapping presented by the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence Pacific Partners last week.

"In this workshop ocean and climate research scientists from Cal Poly will be paired with volunteers and educators from the central coast region. The scientists and educators will work in teams to create visual representations (concept maps) of the ocean/climate scientists' research. The teams will work to discuss various ways the local research can be presented to the public--via exhibits, informal discussions, lectures, or other ways informal educators may see useful for communicating to the public. This is a great opportunity to begin connecting the local ocean/climate scientific research with outreach to the public, and to network with other informal educators."

I hadn't thought of myself as an 'informal educator," but one of the speakers made the point that most people learn about the ocean informally. Little is taught in school, and in higher education, only those who choose courses n ocean science learn about it. So they either pursue their own interest in the ocean or pick it up from people like the elephant seal docents.

It was another way of seeing how important a place like Piedras Blancas is. Last week the Armey base at Fort Hunter-Liggett brought a busload of reservists over to see the seals. They were a unit called up from Missouri. Many had never seen the ocean at all. Some were reluctant to touch the elephant seal skin that I offer to visitors, to let them feel what the molted skin is like.

Thanks, COSEE and Cal Poly, for the opportunity. I plan to use concept mapping in organizing my material for books and public presentations.

This photo is the one I posted to the New York Times photo project, A Moment in Time, It seemed like a representative picture to illustrate that moment on the Central Coast. It was difficult to choose, though. I liked these pictures, too, of seals enterng and leaving the surf, and the expanse of beach to the north. All these pictures were taken at the north end of the bluff.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Research scientists tag elephant seals for many reasons. This one has two tags, which helps estimate tag loss. The tags are small, only an inch and a half long, attached to the hind flippers like pierced earrings. When an animal that has been tagged with two shows up with only one, it indicates that some tags are lost.
The tags are difficult to read from the bluff. Because they are on the flippers, which fold up, the tail has to be displayed such that the tag is visible. Then it has to be readable. Numbers rub off in the abrasive sand. Sometimes the number can be read from a photo, blown up on the computer.
Tags are color-coded to indicate where the animal was born. The white tags on this animal identify Piedras Blancas (White Rocks). Gorda, to the north, get purple tags; Ano Nuevo, green; San Miguel Island, yellow; San Nicolas Island, red; Farallon Islands/Point Reyes, pink; and orange for rehabilitated animals. One of the questions the tags help to answer is how often animals return to the beach where they were born. About three quarters of them do. They are not universally faithful to the beach where they started life.
We see all colors of tags at Piedras Blancas.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Battle scars

I'm amazed at the wounds elephant seals can survive. This animal rests on the beach with the evidence of a shark attack healed on her abdomen. the one that attaced her must have been huge. She's at least five feet long, so figure the size of those jaws.
I'm assuming this is a female, based on its size. I can't tell for sure. It might be a young male.

This animal has a big chunk taken out of it shoulder, now healed. It's definitely a male. You can tell by the beginnings of that elephant trunk nose, beginning to develop. Males start growing that at around age five.

The scars are a reminder of what a tough, eat-or-be-eaten world they live in.

Distinctive scars like these help identify individuals to us human observers, though. Otherwise, one elephant seal can look a lot like another. Visitors sometimes say, How come I'm seeing seals swim out and then swim back to the beach? It's difficult to tell whether that's what's happening, though. It's not impossible, but it's more likely that some animals are leaving and others are arriving.

Unless you're an elephant seal, it's hard to tell one from another.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

May on the Beach

With all the juveniles and adult females on the beach at this time of year, May is actually the month when the most elephant seals are on the beach. More even than during the breeding season. This is the south beach. It's a cloudy day, so they aren't lined up along the water's edge, to take advantage of the cool, wet sand. The pearly gray ones have finished their molt. The brown ones are still working on it. They will be on the beach for several more weeks.

The north beach is similarly crowded. These photos were taken at a relatively low tide.

The exposed rocks will be covered as the tide comes in. When it's out, harbor seals sun themselves and sleep on the rocks. I'll post photos from the same vantage point every month, to show how the population on the beach changes with time.
Visitors often ask What's the best time to see elephant seals? As far as I'm concerned, every day is a good day. There's always something interesting happening. This week, several people remarked that when they saw the sign and decided to pull off the road, they hoped they might see one seal. Their jaws dropped when they saw thousands.
It's great to be a docent here. How many places can you exceed people's expectations so dramatically?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sea lion in San Diego

The photo at this link is hilarious,, of a sea lion pup being retrieved from underneath a police car, where he had spent the past four hours. The picture has inspired some wit among the viewers -- check out the comments. Also the video of a sea lion making its way across a balcony.

Sea lions are different critters from elephant seals, and one of the differences is in their ability to move. Elephant seals have to drag their tail ends, because they are not able to rotate their back flippers the way sea lions can. You can see the trail left by this adult male as he made his way down the beach. Sea lions and other eared seals can turn their hind flippers under their bodies, so that they can 'walk' on land. They can be trained to do tricks, like this one playing soccer, posted on

Nevertheless, elephant seals are more mobile than observers first think, looking at them lying on the beach like washed up logs. They can cover the territory between them and a challenger in the blink of an eye. It's a matter of motivation, If a bull wants to defend his harem, he's on it.

One of the visitors at Piedras Blancas shared with me a story he told few people, because people didn't believe him and made fun of him. He was a dairy farmer from British Columbia, near a river. He found a sea lion in his barn one day.
The excited dogs drew his attention to it. He observed it, as it made its way out of the barn and eventually back into the river.

He'd told a few people, and they'd laughed at him. As we talked, his excitement about the seals got stronger than his embarassment and he told me the story. I assured him I believed him, because I knew of other incidents.

I wrote a whole manuscript about a sea lion who found her way far into Morro Bay State Park a few years ago. The rescuers christened her Pita, for Pain in the Ass, because catching her was so difficult. Sea lions in unusual places are often sick or injured, but not her. She put up a vigorous fight. She was captured on South Bay Boulevard, the only road into the park, which had to be closed to traffic for the event.

Because such captures often involved sea lions that won't survive, they are surrounded with weighty dread. Pita's fighting spirit was encouraging to onlookers, if not to those attempting to get him confined to an animal carrier. She was transported to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and settled in for the night, to be evaluated the next morning.

She was fine when the attendants arrived the next day -- so was the pup she had given birth to during the night. Mother and baby did well at the center and were eventually relocated to San Miguel Island.

I still love that story. Perhaps I should revive it and and see if I can find a publisher for it now.