Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bulls return to molt

The mature adult males are starting to show up on the beach. It's their turn to molt. Some juveniles are still on the beach, but they have finished molting and will soon leave. They sure look nice, with their pearly gray new skin.

The adult males aren't very aggressive toward each other at this time of year, since it isn't the breeding season. One the other hand, they are very aware of each other. Every movement one makes ripples through the group. As one arrives, the others shift to recognize the newcomer. When one makes a move toward another, most of the animals on the beach rearrange themselves.

Their activities are mainly focused on each other. These young males appeared to threaten each other. They fought for a while, then settled down again. The rest of the group slept on.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

California Sea Lions

2010 is shaping up to be a tough year for Calfornia Sea Lions. Many prematurely born pups have already been found dead. Live strandings are far above normal in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties, as reported by the Marine Mammal Center.

A researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz has documented about 300 aborted premature fetuses on Ano Nuevo Island. Usually they about 10-20. Numbers of dead stranded yearlings are also high, for 2009 and 2010. Those have apparently died of malnutrition.

California Sea Lions usually give birth in large rookeries on off-shore islands. Some full-term births have taken place along the populated coastline this year: on the Coast Guard jetty in Monterey, under the Santa Cruz boardwalk, on San Francisco's Pier 39. Mothers often abandon these pups, but some have been observed nursing, so that's cause for hope.

Researchers aren't certain as to what the cause is. The warm El Nino water temperatures may be the cause. The warmer coastal waters drive the sea lions' prey fish, sardines and anchovies, further out to the colder waters offshore. The pregnant mothers use up too much energy swimming further to catch prey. They aren't able to nourish the fetus adequately and can't make it back to the rookery to give birth. Yearlings aren't able to catch enough food to survive.

Domoic acid poisoning, a neurotoxin produced by diatoms, may also be a factor. The algae are eaten by small fish, and the toxin accumulates as predators and prey move up the food chain. The neural effects include disorientation, lethargy and seizures. Domoic acid poisoning may be transferred from mother to pup, and has been associated with premature births. Combined with the difficulties of finding prey due to the El Nino, it could be contributing to the deaths.

Report dead sea lions:
About Sea Lions

Monday, June 21, 2010

Deep Blue Home

My revew of Julia Whitty's new book, Deep Bue Home, appears in the current issue of Erth Island Journal, both hard copy and online.
Veteran journalist Julia Whitty reaches back over a 30-year career devoted to the oceans and synthesizes her experiences into a work that is equal parts personal memoir and environmental history book. Deep Blue Home delves into the influence of oceans in human culture and spirit, while at the same time documenting how human technological ingenuity, fueled by greed and accompanied by a lack of foresight, is devastating the undersea world.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Community Supported Fishery

This week the Community Supported Fishery delivered Blackgill Rockfish. It's a deep water species, a red rockfish with strong head spines, as you can see.
What we received was white meaty fish. Mike Tognazzini showed us how to remove the bones for frying or baking. When I make fish chowder, I'm inclined to leave them in, as I think they impart more flavor.
I have to admit, I've not been much of a fish eater these past years. What with the discussion of overfishing,, the toxic contamination of fish high on the food chain,, I gave up some years ago. I'll eat fish and chips with my husband at our favorite local spot, but rarely buy fish to cook at home.
The CSF is changing my mind. Like fruits and vegetables, truly fresh fish makes a huge difference. This fish is absolutely delicious, beyond describing to someone who hasn't eaten it. The eight ounce portion sounded small for the two of us. We're good eaters. The fish I cooked provided a full meal at dinner and two portions left over, which made excellent fish sandwiches the following day.
I'm learning to cook fish. I've used a package breading my daughter sent me, Louisiana Fish Fry, She's a purist, only eats what she catches herself. [She lives in northern Louisiana and fishes in fresh water.] For the rockfish, I coated it in a light egg batter. The previous week, Black Cod, I omitted the egg, having been cautioned that the cod is naturally oily. It was, but also delicious.
Cost is $75 for a half share, eight ounces of fish once a week, $144 for a full share, a pound of fish once a week. A bargain, because you won't find this in the supermarket.
I can't recommend this program highly enough. If you live in San Luis Obispo county, call Margie Hurd, (805) 481-5827,, to sign up.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

New seals on the beach

A few adult male seals are already on the beach. Their arrival increases the activity, with threats making other males move across the beach. I noticed that an adult male can vocalize and have only the other males take note. One was sleeping among other juveniles, and they slept right on, as the one in their midst startled and then moved in response to pressure from the new arrival.

The beach is less crowded than it was even last week. The juveniles and females are moving back into the ocean.

Construction continues on the north boardwalk. These workers are piling up rocks for the retaining wall near the gate.Further out along the trail, they are preparing it for the decomposed granite.

Visitors are constant, but not so many that it gets crowded. I like to be able to talk to people individually.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Predator becomes prey

National Geographic Untamed Nature reports on an orca that was observed fighting with and overpowering a great white shark in “The Whale that Ate Jaws,” Part of the program is posted at The fight was witnessed by a boat full of whale watchers, who captured it on video. Marine biologist Peter Pyle was working in the islands, and the boat captain contacted him. With a pole camera, he was able to capture underwater footage of two whales feeding on the shark. Marine biologist Mary Jane Schramm was on board the whale watching boat, the Superfish, and also witnessed the attack.

This relates to elephant seals because it happened in the Farallon Islands, where great white sharks gather to feed on elephant seals as they migrate north in the fall. Astonishingly, after this episode in 1997, all the sharks in the area, as many as 100 of them, disappeared from the Farallons, despite its importance as a feeding ground for them. A single elephant seal can be enough to keep a shark fed for three months. Four or five seals a year is a full diet for them. The sharks stayed away for the entire feeding season.

The program speculates that chemicals from the dying shark were released into the water, and that’s what drove the sharks away. That didn’t sound like a complete explanation to me. If that were enough to protect sharks from being killed, why doesn’t it keep them away from the nets of fishermen who take sharks for their fins, and throw the dying fish back into the water?

Additional videos are posted at and Both come from California.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Deformed flippers

This seal was photographed in May by Jim Siler, another docent. She hasn't been seen since, although the USGS biologist has asked to be called if anyone does see her.

Her rear flippers appear to be deformed. Elephant Seal researcher Burney LeBoeuf says, "I agree; they look deformed to me too. If you see enough seals (or any critter) you will observe all kinds of anomalies. I’ve seen a male elephant seal (?) with no penile opening, females with multiple teats, a male that vocalized with its mouth closed (producing a ventriloquial effect) and more.

The deformed one looks healthy, though."

Thanks for your informed opinion, Burney. She does look very plump and well. The seals always amaze me with how well they can manage difficult situations. Their flippers are important to swimming and diving, where they catch their food. This girl has found ways to survive and thrive. with much less than her cohorts. She is an inspiration to us all.

This is another advantage of having docents on the bluff at least six hours a day, every day. Many pairs of eyes will see the unusual and even unique that find their way to the beach.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Boardwalk construction

Construction is progressing, although the CCC crew wasn't out there on Monday. When it's done, it'll be approximately 1700 feet long and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I've become more aware of how important that is through my work at the Moonstone Beach Boradwalk. We trim weeds there, to keep the boardwalk clear. People walking with canes, or walkers, or in wheelchairs thank us for making it possible for them to get out there. Weeds and rocks are a real barrier to those who have mobility impairments.
This picture shows where the boardwalk will be relative to the highway. The first 175 feet take it past the culvert that the seals sometimes go through and get to the other side of the highway. They'll build a rock retaining wall at the south end of that section, to shore it up and improve the grade.

The next 130 feet will be composite lumber. Then 100 feet of rock wall trail tread support, whatever that is. The next 670 feet, out past where the trail now ends, will be aggregate, ending at a 200-foot retaining wall on the south side of the parking lot. I expect there will be access at that end as well as from the current parking lot.

That will be an improvement for busy times of the year. On Memorial Day weekend, cars occasionally were stacked in the left turn lane, waiting to get into the parking lot.

Viewing platforms will be built at key locations along an existing trail adjacent to and between two Caltrans operated parking lots in San Simeon State Park. The boardwalk will be constructed of recycled plastic and pressure-treated wood to resist decay. The entire boardwalk project will be constructed on upland fill along an abandoned roadbed and adjacent to the existing parking lots. The boardwalk will improve public access, eliminate use of a volunteer trail system, protect natural resources, and provide platforms at key locations for elephant seal viewing and interpretation.

The elephant seals take no notice of any changes. Here they are on the beach on Monday, right, although no active work was going on that day. The line across the photo is part of the fencing.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Keeping their cool

The sun came out at the bluff yesterday, prodding the seals to find ways to stay cool. With their thick blubber, they are well adapted to really cold conditions, deep in the north Pacific. They move down the beach, to lie on the cooler wet sand. They raise a flipper, allowing the breeze to cool the blood flowing through it, much as elephants use the circulation in their ears to regulate internal temperature. They toss sand on themselves, to protect them from the sun.

Visitors sometimes comment that they are protecting themselves from sunburn. Certainly, the peeling molt looks like our skin when it peels off after a bad sunburn, but elephant seal skin doesn't sunburn. It's more about regulating temperature.

One of the visitors told me about his experiences as a technician in Antarctica a few years back. The Southern Elephant Seals, which are even larger than Northern Elephant Seals, would park themselves around the base, bachelors who weren't contending for Top Seal. One set himself to rest where he was in the way of moving equipment. When he hadn't moved for several days, the workers decided they'd try to take action.

They got the fork lift and moved it into position, gradually moved the fork under the seal. The seal declined to move, or pay much attention to them at all. The operator began lifting the fork, to raise the seal and move him out of the way. Instead, the back wheels of the forklift came off the ground.

The seal stayed put.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Community Supported Fishery

This isn't exactly on the subject of Elephant Seals, but it does relate to maintenance of the ocean, their habitat. Cal Poly’s Organic Farm launched the first Community Supported Fishery on the West Coast. The first delivery will be next week, June 7.

The Organic Farm sells Community Supported Agriculture shares, which we’ve bought for several years. It’s been wonderful, excellent produce at lower price than we could buy at the farmers market or the supermarket. So we were eager to sign on when we got the notice in April.

The organizers had tested the waters by circulating an Interest Sheet, which 54 people signed. That was enough to encourage them to go ahead with bringing it to fruition.

Community Supported Fisheries are functioning in Maine and North Carolina, and have gotten coverage from major media, As one of the articles says, it’s such an obvious idea, it’s surprising no one has thought of it sooner.
“These programs are for people who want to support local fishing communities and contribute to marine conservation solutions at the same time,” reads organizer Margie Hurd’s flyer. “The California fishing industry is one of the most regulated in the world. This particular CSF is one part of a fishery reform project involving The Nature Conservancy and Central Coast Salmon Enhancement.”

For a great idea, it’s taking time to catch on. We remain, after three years of telling people in our community how terrific it is, the sole subscribers to the farm CSA. I’ve promoted both the farm and now the fishery at every meeting where I can reasonably announce it. People are enthusiastic, but always have some reason why they can’t sign up.

This morning, one woman was confused about the amount of fish involved. She couldn’t possibly eat that much fish, she said. Apparently she misunderstood that the plan delivers half a pound each week. That’s one meal for two people. Cost is $75 for a half share, 8 ounces of fish per week for 12 weeks. A full share is $144, 16 ounces of fish per week for 12 weeks.

I’m looking forward to the first delivery next week, of Vermilion Rockfish, at right. Here’s the word from Morro Bay fisherman Mark Tognazzini’s wife Bonnie:

“How about a flat ocean, very little wind, and good catching? This pretty much describes what the past several days have been like here in Morro Bay…In a nutshell, here is what our weekly tally board looks like for locally caught fish... Capt Schuyler (Paul Schuyler is a Cal Poly Organic farm member!) had a few good days catching Halibut while Capt. John Smith weighed in with some beautiful Vermillion Rockfish.

“ It was caught by hook and line. Fishermen are allowed to catch 250 pounds of it every 60 days according to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a federal government agency.”
Contact Margie Hurd,, to sign up.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New boardwalk

Construction has begun on the boardwalk at the north end of the bluff. This project will take six months, but it will be wonderful for visitors. Having a boardwalk will make it much more accessible, for people who have trouble walking and mothers with kids in strollers.

The workers are in the California Conservation Corps, It's a great program to help young people who haven't found a job, or are somehow struggling to get their adult lives started. The state certainly needs their help, and they are ideal for a project like this.
Thousands of visitors flocked to the viewpoint on this Memorial Day weekend.
The boardwalk will also reduce erosion on the bluff. That dirt trail was deteriorating under too many feet. Inviting people to see the seals requires that we make provision for them.
This year the poison oak was much more abundant, too. I always felt conflicted about warning people about it. It wasn't directly on the trail, and so long as they stayed on the trail, they wouldn't touch it. People often over-reacted to warnings, avoiding the trail entirely when I mentioned it. I never heard of anyone getting poison oak out there.