Saturday, February 6, 2021

Pup time!

Still time to see a pup born

Pregnant females are still arriving at Piedras Blancas to give birth to their pups. Most pups are born at night, but daytime births are common. More than 5,000 pups will be born in the rookery, so you could get lucky. If not, view a video here.

The Piedras Blancas viewpoint remains open to the public. Wear a mask and keep social distance.

King Tides

King Tides are past for this season, but high tides continue. High water threatens pups on the beach. They can swim, but lack the stamina to survive in the ocean. If washed out, skinny young pups without insulating blubber to keep them warm and buoyant can drown. 

Gaining weight

Pups start nursing within a day or so of being born. Pups born in December are already being weaned. Look for rotund, fat pups.

Pups will nurse from any mother willing to tolerate them. Most pups nurse, or attempt to nurse, on at least one mother other than their own. Not every pup survives, and mothers whose pups have died may adopt one or more strays. Some mothers are hostile to other pups and other mothers and aggressively chase them away.

Mothers produce milk by metabolizing their blubber. They lose two pounds for every pound the pup gains. Look for thinner mothers lying next to fat pups.

Around 95 percent of pups at Piedras Blancas survive to be weaned.

Breeding and competition

As pups are weaned, mothers come into estrus, heat, like dogs. They mate before they return to the ocean.

Females in estrus spark battles between males. Most dominance interactions are easy to observe: One bull bellows or raises his head to challenge, and one or more others retreat.  

But with breeding rights at stake, males are willing to fight. They bump chests and rip at each other’s chest shield, the crinkled skin around the neck, with their teeth. Battles can be bloody. Dominant males take no notice of pups or mothers as they chase each other across the beach.

Watch as two bulls challenge each other, and their conflict ripples through the rest of the seals. With new females arriving, pups born, pups being weaned, mothers mating and departing, the beach is in constant motion.

Bulls on other beaches

The bulls who lose those fights find other beaches to heal their wounds and rest up. Hearst Memorial State Beach at San Simeon Cove is especially popular with them. Seals have also hauled out on Moonstone Beach and other places. Unsuspecting beachgoers don’t expect to find a two-ton wild animal in the spot they planned to have a picnic.

Stay back from the seals, and don’t let the dog get near. Pick up a pocket guide from one of the plastic displays and follow the suggestions.

The seals are on the beach temporarily, during the breeding season. The Central Coast is fortunate to share its beaches with these iconic wildlife. People and seals can coexist.



Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Bulls on the beach


Sharing the beach

Winter breeding brings elephant seals to popularbeaches

Central Coast visitors enjoy viewing the elephant seals during their winter pup and breeding season. On some beaches, though, it’s a close encounter with two-ton seals. The public can stay safe on Central Coast beaches by giving the seals plenty of room.

These mammoth bull seals may be as big as 13 feet long and weigh up to 5,000 pounds. Some win their battles for dominance and remain on the breeding beaches, but those who lose out find refuge where they can. That’s often at Hearst Memorial Beach in San Simeon, where beachgoers picnic, walk their dogs and head out to hike to San Simeon Point.

The seals are big wild animals. The ones who come to the beach have lost battles to even bigger seals. They may be injured and exhausted. They have been through a lot already. Curious visitors and sniffing dogs can provoke confrontations that result in injury and infection. Dogs need to remain leashed while visiting any beach where seals are hauled out.

Beachgoers’ activities affect the seals’ ability to rest and recover. They need to be left alone on the beach.

Informational signs and pocket guides of safe Elephant Seal Viewing Guidelines are on site.

Give the seals as much space as possible. They look like they are sleeping, but they can move faster than you think. Steer clear.

Stay upland of seals, not between the seal and the edge of the water. That sleeping seal may decide it’s time for him to leave. Don’t get in his way.

Give seals who are threatening each other extra space. They could charge and engage each other in battle.

Being part of the elephant seal’s breeding season is exciting. The Central Coast is fortunate to be the place the seals have chosen. All species are welcome on Central Coast beaches. Just not too close to each other.

All Covid restrictions and precautions are observed in elephant seal viewing areas, Any concerns can be reported to State Park Rangers at 805-927-2068.


Be aware of your surroundings at all times Elephant seals are not always easy to see. Their natural camouflage blends into sand and driftwood. Stay at a distance. Use binoculars or a telephoto lens, or take photos from the pier. If a seal lifts his head to look at you, you have disturbed him and you are too close.

Keep your dog on a leash at all times. Elephant seals can bite with their large, sharp teeth. For your pet’s safety, do not ever allow your dog to approach a seal, regardless of how inactive the seal seems.

Keep your voice down. Elephant seals have ears and can hear you. Loud noises disturb them. Do not shout or call out to each other on the beach. If your dog is barking, please leave the beach.

Move slowly and minimize your body movements. Elephant seals have excellent eyesight and can see you.

Do not touch seals or throw objects into the water at seals. These actions disturb resting seals. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits harassment of all marine mammals.

Leave your drone at home. This is a no-drone zone.

Consider the seal’s perspective. How would you feel being interrupted constantly while you lie on the beach? How would you respond to loud noises, barking dogs and movement all around you? How would you react to someone causing you harm? Please allow the seals to rest undisturbed.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Pup season

It’s that time of year, the elephant seal birth and breeding season. The first pup was born at Piedras Blancas December 11. Expect daily births through the beginning of 2021.

The elephant seal viewing areas is open, but keep in mind Covid safety measures: wear a mask, stay six feet from other visitors. Check out the Friends of the Elephant Seal live beach cam,, or the FES Facebook page.

Maternity ward

The first pup was born in a section of the south section of the elephant seal viewpoint that has become a center for early births, hence the Maternity Ward nickname. Pups can be born anywhere on the beach, throughout the rookery, from the lighthouse station to Arroyo Laguna.

Pups are about three feet long and weight about 75 pounds when they’re born. They soon plump up on their mothers’ nourishing milk. They’ll nurse for a month. The mothers then wean them, breed, and return to the ocean.

Bulls vie for dominance

Dominance dictates the social organization on the beach. A single bull will be surrounded by 20 or 30 females and their pups. As the beachmaster, he needs to be vigilant, because less dominant bulls will constantly attempt to sneak into the harem of females, or make a direct challenge.

Bulls have unique calls that other bulls recognize. Research has shown that bulls avoid those that have won earlier confrontations. They are more willing to fight bulls with whom they are more evenly matched.

Watch as one bull trumpets his challenge. See which bulls respond – bulls up and down the beach take notice of every call. One may only raise his head, but another may take up the battle.

 If a beachmaster leaves his central position to fight, another bull may take his chance to move in.

Size is significant, but it’s not the sole factor in determining dominance. Look for the length of the nose and the size of the pink chest shield. Both continue to grow from puberty throughout a seal’s life, so they indicate age and seniority.

No food for seals

Because the adult seals don’t eat while they are on the beach, they lose a lot of weight. Nursing mothers may lose a third of their body weight in that month. Bulls may be on the beach as long as 100 days, going from their biggest bulk at the beginning of the season to slender shadows of their former selves by March.  

The seals need to conserve every ounce, until they can get back to the ocean and hunt fish and squid again. The mothers need their blubber to metabolize into milk for their pups. The bulls need it to remain dominant until after the pups are weaned, when the females come into estrus and are willing to breed.

That dominance hierarchy reduces the need for each beachmaster to fight every challenging bull. Fighting uses a lot of energy, so the reproduction advantage goes to the bull who can keep himself vigorous longer, and breed more females.

It’s a balance. Watch the seals jockey for dominance and survival in this winter season on the beach.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Welcome back!
Lots of seals, few visitors

Seals are on the beach at Piedras Blancas, but their docents will not be there to help the public understand them. Friends of the Elephant Seal cancelled all docent shifts and closed its office until further notice, to avoid spreading coronavirus.

Taking a walk is part of sheltering in place. The boardwalk is always open. Come out and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. Check out the FES website,, for information about the seals. The E-Seal News brochure will be available at the bluff.

Good-bye, weaners

Weaned pups, the smallest seals on the beach, sleep among their older cousins and adult females. The weaners are this year’s cohort of pups. They nursed up to a healthy layer of blubber before their mothers left them behind on the beach. That blubber now sustains them. They’ll live off it until they hunt their own food out in the open ocean, on their first migration.

Seal pups, born from December through February, are born black, but they molt that newborn coat after they are weaned at four to six weeks old. Their new, mature, perfect skin is dark on top, light on the belly. Their skin will never look better.

The young weaners will leave the beach, one by one, heading north. No one shows them the way. It’s one of the mysteries of animal migration. Some may get as far north as Alaska, but most don’t get that far.

Fat seals return

In April and May, all the adult females and the juveniles of both sexes return from feeding to molt their skin. That’s all 5,600 females who had pups on the seven or so miles of beaches that are considered the Piedras Blancas rookery, and the females who, for one reason or another, didn’t have a pup this year. 

They arrive on the beach one by one. The new skin is already forming beneath the old skin. Within a few days, the old skin begins to peel off – first around body openings such as eyes and nose, and around scars.

San Simeon Cove

The bulls that frequented San Simeon Cove are gone, and with them the Winter Guides who helped beachgoers negotiate sharing the beach with two-ton seals. That new program, and State Parks tours at Arroyo Laguna, were well received by visitors both human and seal.

Weaner pups who have left their birth beach but haven’t gotten very far strand at San Simeon Cove and other beaches. If they are underweight and exhausted, they may be rescued by a Marine Mammal Center team. This is the busy season for seal rescue.

Seals are thus far unaffected by coronavirus, but wildlife trafficking in other species is thought to be the source of the coronavirus crossover into human infection. Seals can carry other diseases that can affect humans and dogs, so if you see one on the beach, don’t go near it or touch it. Call the Marine Mammal Center operations center in Morro Bay at (805) 771-8300. They will send out a team to evaluate it and rescue it if necessary.

Published in The Cambrian, 

Friday, February 14, 2020

Time to wean

Elephant seals vie for mating dominance

Pups stay out of the way

Pups born in December and January are now weaned. They huddle close to the bluff’s edge, avoiding the bulls that charge to mate with their mothers. Some females have left the beach, but some are still giving birth and nursing their pups. Breeding season is winding down.

A few make their way up the dunes, toward the boardwalk. Visitors get a close-up view. Extra fencing keeps the weaners off the path.

Feast to fast

Weaners have packed on weight, from their birth weight of about 70 pounds to around 300. They vary. Most are rotund, fat and happy, but some have not gained as much. Being sleek may be better than being fat. Additional blubber may make them more buoyant, making diving more difficult. They have to be able to dive to find their food.

Pups undergo major changes in their metabolism as they are weaned. They go from rapidly gaining weight, adding blubber, to metabolizing that blubber to build muscle and meet their energy needs. Once their mothers stop nursing them, they won’t have anything to eat until they leave the beach and start hunting for themselves, in March and April.

About half will survive that first migration. They’ll return to land in the fall. Those that survive may not be much bigger than they are now. Survival is success enough.

Thin mothers, fat pups

The mothers lose about a third of their body weight nursing their pups. Notice how thin the mothers are compared to their fat pups.

They mate before they return to their life at sea. The egg is fertilized, but divides only a few times before going into a state of suspension.  The mother gets to feed for a couple of months before she returns to the beach, an adaptation called delayed implantation.

In May, adult females come to the beach to molt their skin. That’s when the embryo starts developing, for eight months of gestation until it’s ready to be born in the next breeding season.

Stranded pups

When pups first leave the beach, they may get lost. No adult seals help them find their way to their feeding grounds in the North Pacific. They practice holding their breath and swimming in the surf before they leave, but after that they are on their own. They depart for their first migration. Those that don’t succeed on the first try end up stranded on local beaches.

If you see a pup stranded on the beach, call The Marine Mammal Center to report it, on the rescue line, 805-771-8300. Don’t go near it or touch it. They are wild animals and even a starving pup has teeth and can bite. Some carry diseases that humans can catch. Your report is important and you may be asked to help. The person reporting the stranded animal is usually allowed to name it. Helping save one of these unusual animals is rewarding.

California State Parks Guided Tours

Last chance for a close-up walking tour! Breeding season tours will end in March. Last tour March 29. Meet up at 9am, 10:30am, and 12:30pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at Arroyo Laguna, the ocean side of Highway 1, 2.25 miles north of the Hearst Castle Entrance, 35°39'11.04"N, 121°13'18.83"W on your GPS.

Tickets at the site, first come, first served, and at the Hearst Castle Visitor Services Office, day of tour only. No advance sales. $13 per person, children under 5 free. Free onsite parking.
The tour includes a 45-minute, easy ½-mile guided trail walk, on varied terrain. 

The guides will tailor the tour for your interests. Children welcome. Maximum tour group is 20 people.
Dress for the weather – seals ignore wind and rain – and bring binoculars.
For more information, call (805) 927- 2010 or visit the website

Published here, 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Elephant seal shot and mutilated

NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement is offering a reward of up to $20,000 for information that leads to a civil penalty or criminal conviction in the September shooting death of a protected northern elephant seal near San Simeon, California.
The seal’s remains were found September 29, 2019 near a popular viewing area along California Highway 1 where visitors can observe elephant seals on the beach. The animal had been shot in the head, with its tail fins cut off and chest cavity cut open.
A bullet was found in the seal and is awaiting forensic analysis.
Elephant seals and other marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It carries civil penalties of up to $28,520 per count, a year in prison, criminal fines, and forfeiture of vessels or vehicles involved.
Northern elephant seals spend most of the year at sea, but come ashore twice a year in rookeries such as the beaches at Piedras Blancas, near San Simeon. Commercial hunting pushed the species close to extinction around 1900 but the population has since recovered.
The Act prohibits harassment, hunting, capturing, or killing of marine mammals. However, the law allows for non-lethal methods to deter marine mammals from damaging private property, including fishing gear and catch, so long as it does not result in the death or serious injury of an animal.
“We’re asking for help from anyone who may have seen or heard or knows anything related to this incident,” said NOAA Fisheries Special Agent Jeremy Munkelt.
Anyone with information should call the investigating agent direct at (831) 647-4203 or NOAA Fisheries’ 24/7 enforcement hotline at (800) 853-1964. To report a dead, injured, or stranded marine mammal, call the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at (866) 767-6114.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Pups on the way!

December 2019

Seals arriving daily!

Bulls vie for females’ attention

A pup was born December 16 in the “maternity ward” area along the south end of the Piedras Blancas boardwalk. More will follow as the birth and breeding season unfolds through February.
A few bulls were on the beach for the event, but a huge senior bull arrived later in the day. Bulls challenge each other, but the dominance hierarchy actually reduces fighting. About 80 percent of dominance interactions end peacefully.

Fighting uses precious energy. Bulls may be on the beach as long as 100 days, without food. The breeding season is one of several long fasts during the seals’ year. Those big boys need all the blubber they have packed on since last season to stay the course.

If bulls had to leave the beach to feed, their harem of females would immediately be overtaken by another bull. It’s advantageous for them to remain vigilant on the beach.

Over 5,000 pups are born at Piedras Blancas each year, in the rookery stretching from the lighthouse in the north to Arroyo Laguna in the south.

Bachelor Beach

Trained volunteers will be on the beach at San Simeon Cove on the weekends during the breeding season, from December through March. Bull seals that have lost the battle to dominate a harem on a breeding beach have been coming to the cove beaches to recover. Guides will help visitors enjoy the beach without disturbing the seals or placing themselves at risk.
This bull rests while partiers prepare the barbeque for the party.

Spotting scopes will be available on the pier. Get that close-up photo without interrupting a sleeping seal.

The less dominant bulls that haul out at the cove have lost battles and need to heal their wounds and recover their strength. They can dream of returning to lead a harem another day.

Seals don’t eat during the breeding season, so they need to conserve their strength.

Every seal on the beach is a survivor. Whether he’ll ever get to breed, he has survived in the ocean for years, avoiding sharks and making his way on two 5,000-mile migrations every year. He’s found enough food to bulk up to two tons or more. That’s a survivor worth honoring.

California State Parks Guided Tours

Hearst San Simeon State Park will offer guided tours to see the elephant seals during the breeding season. Tours start January 3 and run through the end of March. Meet up at Arroyo Laguna, the ocean side of Highway 1, 2.25 miles north of the Hearst Castle Entrance, 35°39'11.04"N, 121°13'18.83"W on your GPS at 9am, 10:30am, and 12:30pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Tickets at the site, first come, first served, and at the Hearst Castle Visitor Services Office, day of tour only. No advance sales. $13 per person, children under 5 free. Free onsite parking.

The tour includes a 45-minute, easy ½-mile guided trail walk, on varied terrain. 

The guides will tailor the tour for your interests. Children welcome. Maximum tour group is 20 people.

Dress for the weather – seals ignore wind and rain – and bring binoculars.

For more information, call (805) 927- 2010 or visit the website