Monday, April 22, 2013

Sand and sun

It's quiet on the beach these days. Careful youngsters scuffle in the surf, taking an opportunity to build their fighting skills and exercise their dominance instincts. Most remain on the bech, sleeping and letting their skin peel off.

Their skin naturally molts once a year. In the spring, it's the adult females and juveniles of both sexes who are losing their skin. Adult males return in the summer for their molt.

On a sunny, warm day last week, seals up and down the beach were flipping sand onto their backs, like this female.

This is the highest population of seals on the beach, more event than during breeding season. Friends of the Elephant Seal has graphs showing population changes on its site. Note the differences in scale -- many more females and juveniles than adult males.

Sometimes they just bury their noses in the sand.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Driving Miss Elephant Seal

The squawking is loud, but not unbearable. The fishy stink is worse. But the elephant seal pups love it. That’s their main food.

They aren’t usually enclosed in a van, driving the highway across the mountains, though. In their open air habitat along the coast, who cares that they smell like fish?

These pups, safe in animal carriers, ride in an air-conditioned van on a trip they could never have imagined they’d take. But once they crossed paths with humans, they were rescued. Now they are on their way to the next step of their rehabilitation. As soon as they are strong enough, they’ll be released to their ocean home.

Many northern elephant seal pups launch into their first migration without incident. Others can’t catch enough food and wash up on the beach, hungry and tired. When they do, marine mammal rescuers collect them and feed them until they gain enough weight to have the energy to take on their ocean world again.

We drove this group of seven seals as far as King City, where we met a driver from Monterey and exchanged vans with her. That’s a lot easier and less alarming to the seals than trying to move the carriers from one van to the other. She took over the northern half of the trip, to the Marine Mammal Center hospital in Sausalito.

The seals weren’t all that sick. Underweight and resting on the wrong (read: populated) beaches, they’ll get some food – they were all able to eat fish on their own -- and soon be on their way. Orange tags on their back flippers will identify them as animals who have been rescued and released, in case they are ever sighted again.

The MMC triage center in Morro Bay needed to move them out, to make room for 15 starving sea lion pups scheduled to arrive from Southern California later that day. Transferring them from their carriers to the pens was hectic – two broke out and skittered around the courtyard. They were eventually herded into their pens and fed. Eleven of them were able to eat fish on their own. The other four were too weak, and will be tube fed a fishy formula to get them stronger.