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.
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.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Southern Sea Otters share the marine habitat of elephant seals, but they aren't doing as well. Research reported by local USGS wildlife biologist Brian Hatfield,, shows their already decimated population in a second year of decline. For animals that once numbered in the millions, the struggling population of 2,711 puts the species at risk.

The sea otters can also be considered a bellwether species, indicating the overall health of the coastal waters they inhabit. It's an overall population drop of 3.6 percent and an 11 percent decline in pups.

There's a lot of possible reasons for the decline, not least of which is the dramatic storms and El Nino conditions of last winter. David Sneed added more detail to the situation in the San Luis Obispo Tribune on Friday, That's where research would help. Unfortunately, one of the funds that supports research is going begging. The California Sea Otter Fund, which gets its money from a voluntary checkoff, is $31,000 short of its target, which is $258,563. According to the article, the fund accepts money only from the taxpayer checkoff -- there's no way for the public to donate.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Summer on the beach

Adult males are resting and molting on the beach, to the delight of summer travelers. Yesterday, one spent hours bobbing in the surf just in front of a rock, calling impressively. We speculated that the rock provided some echo, reverberating so that he sounded louder to himself. He certainly enjoyed that spot.

Most rest placidly on the beach. The weather has been perfect, sunny but not hot, light breeze but not windy.

National Geographic Television has a documentary about Humboldt Squid, a favorite elephant seal prey, Dangerous Encounters: Cannibal Squid, I was out of town for the initial showing July 30, so I'll catch up with it soon.

Several very small individuals were on the beach near the adult males. The young of the year, the pups born in January which left on their first migration in March, return to the beach in September. These were so much smaller that I'd hesitate to describe them as juveniles. Perhaps some have already completed that first migration and are on the beach for their rest, called the Fall Haul-Out.