December brings the elephant seal bulls to the beach. Splashing and bellowing, they challenge each other and fight to establish who is dominant. The top seals, beachmasters, will get to breed with the females later.
|This fellow arrives on the beach.|
By the time you read this, their pups will be born. More than 5,000 pups were born in the Piedras Blancas rookery last season.
Males challenge each other frequently. Those on the second rung of males, subdominant, loiter around the edges of the herd of females gathered on the beach. Occasionally, one will sneak in along the edge, looking for the main chance. The senior beachmasters maintain order through constant vigilance. Less dominant males annoying the new mothers stay aware of the alpha bull.
Females will continue to arrive through February. The mothers give birth to their pups on the beach shortly after they arrive. Pups aren’t exactly helpless, but they’re skinny. They nurse avidly, gaining more than 200 pounds in a month. Their mothers don’t eat during that time, so they slim down as their pups fatten.
|This newborn gives himself a scratch.|
Male elephant seals have occasionally beached themselves on Hearst State Beach at San Simeon Cove, but last year was the first time females came and had their pups there. Females generally return to the same beach to give birth, so they are expected to show up again. San Simeon is a popular beach with humans, so it puts the issue of getting along with wildlife front and center.
The beach is under overlapping jurisdiction of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and California Department of Parks and Recreation. Supervising Ranger Lisa Remington is planning ahead for the arrival of seals on the beach. A male is already in residence at the south end location where four or five females had pups last year.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act is a federal law that prohibits anyone doing anything to harass or harm the seals. State Parks’ codes also protect the seals, and local Parks Superintendent Nick Franco has issued an order to stay at least 100 feet from the seals. The district will post informational signs at Hearst Beach, Arroyo Laguna and the Piedras Blancas motel.
“Those are the places drivers first see the seals,” Remington said. “We want them to know, for the best viewing, just keep going. We’re very proactive about educating the public.”
Remington is recruiting new Elephant Seal Ambassador docents to direct eager visitors to the Piedras Blancas viewpoint, where visitors have a better view. And both seals and people are safer.
“Part of the mission of State Parks is to balance resource protection with recreation,” she said. “The restrictions aren’t arbitrary. Everything goes back to finding that balance.”
Docents will get eight hours of training, scheduled for the first week of January, before going out to meet the public at Hearst State Beach. Cal Poly interns from the Coastal Discovery Center and the Tourism and Recreation Department will join the ranks. Contact Robyn Chase (805) 400-8531 or Robyn.Chase@ parks.ca.gov to sign up.