Tuesday, March 29, 2011

At play

Elephant seals aren't often playful, but occasionally they interact in ways that appear to be play. Yesterday out at the bluff a couple of youngsters cavorted in the pond under the culvert for an hour or more. Visitors were entertained as they rolled and pummeled each other.

It's difficult to say exactly what was going on with them, but they kept it up until one climbed out of the water, followed by the other. It didn't appear to be unpleasant, more as if one simply got tired.

A visitor from Switzerland gave me a coin distributed by ProNatura, an organization dedicated to sustainable development, biodiversity and fighting poverty. It's wonderful to find people coming together from around the world to champion these important issues.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Silent presence reduces harassment

Docents play an important role in buffering the space between humans and seals.

Biologist Alejandro Acevedo-GutiƩrrez usually studies marine mammal behavior, but lately he's been watching other creatures: human tourists.

While on sabbatical in New Zealand, the Western Washington University scientist monitored visitors to a popular waterfall where groups of fur seal pups rest and play. Overenthusiastic tourists often get too close to the seals, try to touch them, or throw food or objects to encourage them to play and move about.

As the seal pups flee, they are sometimes injured or, worse, trampled to death. But when Acevedo-GutiƩrrez's research assistant, his wife, sat on a nearby rock wearing an official-looking orange vest, the number of pestering groups of tourists dropped from 38 percent to 13 percent, even though she didn't tell them what to do.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pup rescue!

We rescued our first elephant seal pup yesterday. The pup was beached at Northpoint, at the north end of Morro Bay. That section of beach isn’t heavily used. There’s a small parking lot and perhaps half a dozen people walking on the beach, several with dogs.

It was a sunny, mild day. A light breeze blew the heat off our arms.

He was lying quietly on the beach 100 yards or so from the stairs leading down to the beach. He was thin, not a chubby round weaner, but the kind with a thin, tapering body. These weaners, photographed last year at Piedras Blancas, show the comparison. He had been unresponsive to the first rescuers on the scene who assessed his condition and made the decision to rescue him. When we got down on the beach with the animal carrier, he raised his head and opened his mouth to us. His teeth had barely erupted. I saw lower canines and a couple of small teeth farther back in the jaw. He didn’t have any wounds, but a small patch of tar on his shoulder.

The senior rescuer wrapped a towel around the seal’s head, burrito-wrap style, and the other resucer and I lifted and shoved him into the carrier. I didn’t take time to reflect on what his skin felt like. Not rough, not soft. Just skin with short hair.

He was mostly molted but retained some baby black coat on his flippers and fins.

He responded to our presence by raising his head in a threat, but didn’t follow through. He was, as far as a seal can be, cooperative.

Carrying the animal carrier up the steps was hard. Good thing we had four of us, including my strong husband, Gordon. We stopped twice on our way up to catch our breath. The entire carrier and animal weighed 39 kg. The pup weighed 26.5 kg.

Pups look cute, with their large dark eyes, and their relaxed behavior appears playful. When I got close to this animal, even though he was lethargic, I felt a rush of wild power. It was different from the energy of large domestic animals like horses and cows. His energy had a strong power of ocean wind and current.

I probably won’t call them ‘cute’ again.

We unloaded him and his carrier at the center. We weighed him and his carrier, then put him in a cage. We brought the carrier into the cage and then tipped it up to let him slide out. The concrete looks hard, but it’s no worse than lying on the hard packed sand, which he’s accustomed to. We set up his chart, named him Topsy, and started treatment for starvation. He got electrolytes via tube. He tolerated it well, not putting up much resistance. He was scheduled for a formula feeding at 8 pm. I'll lfollow his progress and track it here.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Weaners rule!

Most of the mothers are gone, leaving their weaned pups to manage on the beach. They are doing fine, as these fat youngsters show.
These active ones practice swimming in the pool under the culvert. I like to think that this water is relatively clean. It's runoff from the ranchland across the road. There's no chemical fertilizer or pesticides used there, it's open land. I hardly ever even see cows on it.
That beachmaster male keeps a close eye on the females that remain. They'll be leaving soon. This female decided it was time for her to leave, creating excitement among the subdominant bulls that were keeping their distance from the beachmaster. He fought with a few, which made the rest retreat.
He followed her down to the water's edge to mate with her. I like to think that being close to the water helped her escape the attentions of the other males.

The California Report interviewed an elephant seal docent at Pescadero for its Giving State series on volunteers.