Saturday, December 21, 2013

First pups!

Pups were born on the beach at the viewpoint this week. At least three were there by Friday evening.
This mother was resting comfortably with her new baby. No one had observed him nursing yet, but both looked good and will no doubt get on with life soon.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sea lion rescue

A small sea lion was stranded on the south beach at the rookery on Thursday. My husband Gordon and I were on the team that rescued him and brought him to the Morro Bay Marine Mammal Center facility for treatment.

He looked pretty bad on the beach.
Fortunately, there weren't many seals near him. That makes it possible for people to get down on the beach and retrieve him. That's him, the little dot at the center of the photo.
As soon as he saw the animal carrier, though, he wanted to escape. Either someone has tried to rescue him before, or he was reading our minds.
One of the rescuers threw a net over him to keep him from going back into the water. Another held a herding board to contain him.
He mustered energy to try to escape.
They got the carrier down over the cliff.
He went into the carrier without any trouble, but the net was caught on his nose.
They got him untangled so they could secure the door and let him settle down.
They hauled the carrier back up the cliff
and over the fence.
He made the trip back to Morro Bay in the back of the pickup. Once there, he snapped at his rescuers but they were able to give him some subcutaneous fluids to sustain him. No diagnosis yet as to what's wrong with him. His back was very twisted and he seemed unable to move his left side.

In the spirit of the season, he was named Elf.

Update: Unfortunately, he was too sick and did not survive the night. MMC vets will perform a necropsy to determine what was wrong with him.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Seals entangled in plastic lines and straps are not uncommon. Today, one seal that has been released from an entanglement was on the beach, and a crew of Marine Mammal Center workers were planning to free another.

These photos show Gordo, a seal who was freed from the plastic that was killing him in July 2013. He's tagged as a result of his previous encounter, and his scar is distinctive, so it's certainly the same seal. He sure looks better than he did when he was found suffering on the Big Sur coast!

It's amazing that seals can have such serious injuries and survive them, to thrive in the difficult and dangerous ocean.

Rescuers from the Marine Mammal Center searched the beach until they found another seal that was reported with a plastic strap around his neck. He was about 200 yards south of the south end of the Piedras Blancas boardwalk.
He's in the center of this photo, with the strap obvious around his neck. Lisa Harper Henderson, site manager for the Morro Bay Marine Mammal Center facility, reports that the team later found "The entanglement was yet another packing strap." 

The seal was a male about five years old, weighing about 160 kilograms, 350 pounds. Rescuers were able to cut the strap, but skin had grown around it on the underside, embedding it in the flesh. "We do not pull on embedded materials because we could cause more harm, such as bleeding if a vein is involved," she said. 

The seal had about eight inches of white packing strap flapping loose on his neck when they were done. Normal recovery should allow the area to heal and the strap to fall off on its own. I'll keeep an eye out for him and post a photo when I find him,. 

Entanglements are tragic, slow death for the seals, the result of our careless trash in the ocean. My hope is that every person who visits the elephant seals comes away committed to reducing the trash and pollution of the ocean.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Shark ping!

Duke, a 17-foot great white, is the first tagged shark to swim close enough to the buoy to register his presence! Welcome.
 There are plenty of subadults and juveniles still on the beach.

This one adult was the only one on the beach last week.

They're enjoying resting together.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hold your breath and stay fat

Visitors often ask whether the seals are dead, since they aren't breathing. Susanna Blackwell, now a researcher in acoustics for Greeneridge Sciences Inc. in Santa Barbara, wrote her Ph.D. 17 years ago under Burney LeBoeuf at UC Santa Cruz on sleep apnea in elephant seals.She presented her findings to the Friends of the Elephant Seal docents last week.She called it "Hold your breath and stay fat:

Sleep apnea as a water and energy saving strategy for elephant seal."

She pointed out that elephant seals, because they have no access to fresh water, have a lot of adaptations in common with desert animals. They live as though they are in a desert. They are at risk of dehydration. They have developed many strategies that desert animals have developed to reduce water loss.

Elephant seals are different from most other mammals. No other mammal fasts while lactating, or can lose so much body weight without serious problems. Males stay on land for 100 days and lose 7 kg a day during the breeding season. The top ranked male may lose about 41 percent of body weight. Lower ranked males lose around 34 percent. Females fast for 30 days while lactating. These are desert mammal adaptations. They have efficient kidneys and elaborate nasal turbinates to recapture moisture.

Under water, they hold their breath to be able to catch prey. On land, it helps them save water and energy. They are not the only seals that hold their breath, but they hold their breath the longest. Other seals include Weddel, harbor, gray and Hawaiian monk seals.
“They are so different from other animals that we called them Martians in the lab,” she said.

On land, the seals breath in, breathe out, then breathe out a little more, just as they do when they dive.

During lactation, it’s advantageous to produce less water for milk to conserve energy. At the beginning of lactation, milk is 75 percent water and 15 percent fat. By day 21, those percentages are reversed: 35 percent water and 55 percent fat.

Weaned pups fast for 70 days.

Seals produce little urine or fecal material while fasting. The urine they do produce is concentrated. The main route of water loss is through respiration.

In the nasal turbinates, the branching structures visible inside the skull above, there is a counter-current heat exchange, in which the breath is warmed on entering the body, so it takes up more moisture, and cooled as it is exhaled, so that the moisture can be recaptured. The turbinates provide increased surface area for moisture-exchange membranes: 3140 cm2, over 3 square meters. 92 percent of respiratory water is recovered. That compares to 24 percent in sheep, a comparable land mammal.

Weaners develop longer apnea periods as they age. Those 60 days and older develop their apnea during the post-weaning fast.

Fewer breaths = less water loss. Each breath exhales 50 mg of H2O.

She monitored their heart rate and breathing rate during apnea. Normal heart rate is 90 per minute while breathing, 40 per minute during apnea.

The weaners she followed spent the night in the water.

During the fall haul-out, the young of the year spent more time on the beach, four of her group never entering the water at all. They breathed less. By 95 days old, weaners breathed 50 percent less than at 60 days. Young of the year during their haul-out breathed 76 percent less.

They burn fat to create water. By conserving water, they are able to retain fat reserves.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Early arrival

An adult male was on the beach yesterday. The adults usually start arriving around Thanksgiving, so he's a bit early. He didn't stay on the beach long.

 He returned to the water, where he bellowed at the beach.
 The youngsters were active in the water.
 The juveniles are starting to thin out on the beach. More adults will soon replace them.
A beautiful day at Piedras Blancas.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Entanglement cut free!

Yesterday, my husband went to the bluff to man the sales table. While there, Lisa Harper Henderson of the Marine Mammal Center called him to check on a report of an entangled elephant seal. he found the seal and sent her this photo from his phone.

The seal had a tight band around his neck. Other seals were in the vicinity, but not too many.
Lisa drove up from her site in Morro Bay with a team and was able to hook a long-handled tool under the plastic and cut it free.A heroic effort! Thanks, Lisa!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Marine mammals in captivity

CNN is showing the documentary Blackfish, about captive orcas used in Sea World and other marine parks for entertainment. It's disturbing but worth seeing. Sea World refused to talk for film, but responded to the film here. Scroll down to the Comments, where Naomi Rose, the Humane Society of the U.S. staff marine scientist, responds to Sea World's statements.

The film illustrates conditions that are an important reason I'm an elephant seal docent at a natural rookery. Piedras Blancas is free, always open to the public, held in trust by the people of California for the people and wildlife of the world. Welcoming people and introducing them to the seals, and an unstructured experience outdoors with wildlife, is the best way I can think of to counteract corporate ownership of our entertainment and the idea that these animals can be owned and caged.

The best response to captive animals is not to patronize these establishments. Some day we'll look at them with the revulsion we feel for Nazi concentration camps.

On a lighter note, lots of seals are enjoying the beach now:

 These are all juveniles, although some are much bigger than others. Better hunters, I guess!
 The young males tussle with each other. Mothers of teenage boys always find this instantly recognizable.
 This young seal is probably six or seven years old, judging by the size of his nose (technically, proboscis).
Her's a side view. The nose starts to grow when the seal is about five years old, so it's a rough estimate of age during those years. Male seals are considered mature at age eight, but probably are not dominant enough to mate until they are twelve.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

California Condors

Piedras Blancas has lots of wildlife other than elephant seals. It's not far from the Big Sur wilderness, where California Condors have been released. I met Susan Foreman Lewis last week, who owns a local clock and doll business, Once Upon A Tyme, and loves condors. She sent these beautiful pictures, which she took.

 Perhaps the large elephant seals could be prey objects, food for condors. They feed on the carcases of large animals. None has ever been seen on the beach, but some day one might find its way there, if there were a dead animal on the beach. That doesn't happen often, but occasionally one dies on the beach.

 Wingspan can be 10 feet and they can soar up to 15,000 feet high. They may travel 150 miles a day in search of food.

 The captive-raised birds are released to the wild. After the population fell to fewer than three dozen birds in the 1970s, researchers captured all they could and brought them into a captive breeding program. When the wild population continued to decline, they captured the last 10 birds in 1987 and brought them into the program. They are gradually being released to establish a wild population. Today, 127 condors live in the wild.

 This youngster is one of them. "Too cute," says Susan.
California Condors survive in a difficult world. Lead poisoning from firearm ammunition poisons them. Legislation could make California lead-free, which may help.

The arrival of elephant seals on the Central Coast could attract condors. These magnificent birds are at the top of the food chain. I've never seen one, but I look forward to the day when one glides silently onto the beach before my astonished eyes.

You can watch the condors on the live web cam any time.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Beach boys

 Lots of juveniles on the beach!
 They enjoy trying their fighting moves out on each other, in the water and on land.
 Someone asked me to estimate how many seals on the beach today. I thought at least a thousand.
 They do look peaceful when they're asleep.
 A couple are large individuals, but when you get a look at the development of the nose, they look no more than seven years old.
This seal demonstrates his ability to bend his spine almost in a circle.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thanks, Cuesta!

Students from Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo arrived with tools and energy to remove invasive fennel and thistles from the landscape along the boardwalk at Piedras Blancas. They did a bang-up job and the area looks wonderful. Thank you!

This was arranged by Carol and Phil Adams. Thanks to them for their continuing dedication.