January at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal beach is a constant soap opera. Newborn pups are born, beginning their saga. Adult male bulls vie with one another for dominance, the key to the big prize of mating with the females. Mothers squabble over territory and, sometimes, over pups.
Females arrive daily, and births happen
frequently. More than 5,000 pups will be born in the rookery this year,
and anything can happen.
Some pups bond with attentive mothers and suckle their way to 300 pounds.
pups sometimes get separated from their mothers, who may lose track of
them. The mother may be distracted by another mother or pup coming too
close for her comfort. The mother may have to scoot down the beach to
escape a bull thundering across the sand to face a challenger.
a birth is a high point for visitors. Many births occur within easy
viewing range, but it’s not always easy to predict who will have a pup
next. Docents try to point out possible nativities, but it’s never a
sure thing. Even if a female is contorting herself in ways that suggest
she’s straining to give birth, the arrival may be hours away.
Gulls indicate when a birth
has occurred, swarming around to eat the afterbirth. They clean it all
up. For them, it’s protein-rich food, part of the biological cycle.
presiding over a harem of females with their pups are called
beachmasters. Perfect name! See them reclining in the midst of the
crowd, their long noses flopped in the sand.
Less dominant bulls
sneak around the edges, looking for the main chance with one of the
girls. It seldom works — the females won’t mate until they come into
estrus (heat) at the end of lactation. They bark their objections, which
soon brings the wrath of the beachmaster down on the interloper.
the less dominant bulls never get discouraged. They continue to hang
around and make advances, no matter how often they get chased.
see a lot of that on the beach, as one bull moves forward, another
moves toward him, then a third bull moves toward the territory vacated
by the challenger.
Occasionally, displacement doesn’t settle it, and the bulls come to real blows.
bump their massive chests and rip and tear with long canines at each
other’s chest shields — the pink calloused skin around their necks.