Thursday, March 14, 2024

Pups wean, their first steps to independence

 They prepare for their first migration

Born in just the past two months, elephant seal pups at Piedras Blancas are getting ready to set out on their first migration. They are ready to launch.

Fat and sleepy

Weanling pups are easy to recognize. They are fat, even roly-poly. They were born all black, but now are countershaded, light on the belly and dark on the back. They will have that color pattern for the rest of their lives.


Weaning is a major transition in their lives. They go from gaining weight fast, from 75 pounds at birth to over 200 pounds in a month, to no food at all. Long fasts, periods of not eating, are a feature of elephant seal life. This is their first fast. They need their blubber to get them through to the next stage, migration.

Adult seals breeding drama

Pups congregate in groups, called pods, on the beach. They stay out of the way of the adults, who are still in the drama of breeding. Bulls trumpet and fight, females bawl. Weanlings stay out of the way and sleep.


As the mothers come to the end of lactation, they are at their thinnest. Their blubber has been metabolized into milk, feeding those chubby weanlings. Neither they nor the bulls have had anything to eat since they arrived on the beach.


Females come into estrus as they wean their pups. They are then ready to mate with the bulls. That’s when the bulls get competitive. Earlier battles were over territory. Now, they battle over breeding. 

Look for bulls raising their heads to stare at each other. One or the other will make a move, and one may back off from a fight. It’s called dominance interaction, displacement. From the viewing area, visitors can see which bull is dominant. 

If neither backs down, they’ll battle. The loser may leave the beach entirely, finding another beach to recover. Deaths are rare. Both live to fight, and breed, another day.


Swim School

Although the weanlings are quiet, for the next eight to 12 weeks their bodies will undergo changes that prepare them to face their lives in the open ocean. They will lose some of their blubber. They’ll finish growing teeth, so they can hunt their own food.

They venture into the surf to practice diving, swimming and holding their breath. Weaned pups learn to hold their breath around six minutes, some as long as 12 minutes. That will help them stay underwater and dive deep enough to catch food. They are on their own now.

They are more likely to be in the water at night, so early mornings and late afternoons are the best time to see them splash around and put their heads underwater to hold their breath. Most will leave the beach on their first migration by the end of April.

Watch a video on the Friends of the Elephant SealsYouTube channel.

Bachelor beaches

Few bachelor bulls have come to Hearst Memorial Beach at San Simeon Cove this year. They may have gone to other beaches, such as the north beach at the Piedras Blancas viewpoint and other points north.

State Parks tours

During this exciting season, February through March, State Parks is offering tours at the Arroyo Laguna beach. Tours are available 9 am on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Tickets are $13 per person. Meet at the parking lot, 2.25 miles north of the Hearst Castle Entrance and south of the Piedras Blancas viewpoint. 

Dress for conditions, walking on uneven rocky and sandy ground, possibly muddy. Wear sturdy, close-toed shoes. Dress in warm layers. 

Bring cameras and binoculars. Call 805-776-2564 or check the website for information.

Speakers Bureau

If your organization would like to learn more about the seals Friends of the Elephant Seal offers free speakers. To arrange a speaker, call the FES office, (805) 924-1628 or request a speaker through the website/. The Speaker’s Bureau Coordinator will respond and set up a date.



Thursday, March 7, 2024

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Just Animals Podcast

I did a podcast about Elephant Seals with Elle and Guy Schwartz of Just Animals. It was fun! 

Weanlings on the beach. Looking good!

Friday, February 16, 2024

Pups grow fast

From newborn to weaned in a month

High tides have taken their toll on newborn elephant seal pups at the Piedras Blancas viewpoint, but hundreds survive. They grow fast on high-fat milk. Every day, more weaned pups are left on the beach. Their mothers leave them to manage on their own.

Fat weanlings

That’s not a problem for the weanlings. They are fat and sturdy, making the transition to independent life. As they mature, their bodies change from rapidly gaining weight to eating nothing, and living off that blubber. They grow from 75 pounds at birth to over 200 a month later. Visitors can estimate the age of the pups by size alone.  

They fast for the first time. All elephant seals have two long fasts every year in their annual cycle, while they are on the beach.

Their mothers are finished with their fast and ready to start feeding. They ate nothing while nursing the pup. They are thin, and need to return to the ocean to forage and gain the blubber that sustains, protects and insulates them. They will return in six or eight weeks, their healthy weight restored from nearly constant foraging.

This mother has given her blubber to her pup, who is almost as round as she is. She's ready to return to the ocean to feed.

Bulls, mothers, pups

Some females are still arriving at the beach to give birth, while other mothers have completed their maternal duties. Females mate with bulls before they leave the beach. Mating can be noisy, with the female barking and flapping around. Other bulls may take interest and chase the bull attempting to breed. Fights break out. Visitors see a wide range of development at the viewpoint.

Gulls are part of the beach ecosystem. They gather to consume the afterbirth, and clean up any pups that died. This one insisted on stealing milk while a pup nursed.

This gull annoyed both mother and pup by sneaking in to steal milk

One pup at a time

Elephant seal mothers have only a single pup. Since they don’t eat while they are nursing, they don’t have adequate reserves to feed multiple pups. It’s common for pups to nurse on mothers other then their own, though. Some mothers tolerate it better than others. Often mothers have several pups around them. Only one is hers.

This mother tolerates extra pups nursing. Around 80 percent of pups nurse on more than one mother. 

Mothers whose pups were washed away by high tides may adopt a pup, or at least be willing to let a hungry one nurse. Inexperienced mothers can become better mothers.

Pups are at risk if they get separated form their mothers. Mother-pup separation is the most frequent case of pup death, although over 90 percent of the pups born at Piedras Blancas survive.
Watching a pup search for its mother is heart-rending, but often a persistent pup will find its mother – or some mother willing to nurse it.

Weanling pods

Weaned pups congregate in groups called pods, out of the main breeding areas, along the base of the cliffs. Look for rotund seals with black skin peeling off. They shed the black coat they were born with after they are weaned. It reveals their first countershaded coat, dark on the back and light on the belly.

The fat weaner on the right has already shed his black newborn coat. His companion is in the process of getting that more mature countershading.

As the adults leave, weaned pups have more space to gradually make their way to the water. Their next developmental task is to learn to swim and dive. They are more likely to be in the water at night, so early mornings and late afternoons are the best time to see them splash around and put their heads underwater to hold their breath. Most will leave the beach on their first migration by the end of April.

King Tides

King Tides will inundate the beach again February 9. Fat weaned pups will be safer than newborns. Most of the seals are farther away from the water’s edge, but high tides always threaten some pups. The Coastal Commission encourages the public to document the extent of King Tides with photographs and share them with the Commission

My photos of February 9’s King Tide at Piedras Blancas, Hearst State Beach, San Simeon Cove, San Simeon Wastewater Treatment Plant, Arroyo del Padre Juan, Leffingwell Landing, and Santa Rosa Creek are posted on the Coastal Commission’s map.



Thursday, December 28, 2023


Lots of activity during seal breeding season 

The first pups of the season were born over the December 16-17 weekend. More will follow, over 5,000 in the Piedras Blancas rookery before the breeding season is over in mid-March.

Bulls fight for dominance, to reign over territory and have breeding rights. Mothers protect their pups from the fray and high tides. When it isn’t a noisy uproar, mothers nurse their pups peacefully, and sleep beside them in scenes that evoke recognition of mothers everywhere.

Through the season, newborns start out skinny and fill out to rotund 250-pound weaned pups. Bulls and mothers get thinner as time goes by. Only the pups eat during the breeding season.

No schedule for births

Pups are born day and night. Everyone wants to witness a birth, but predicting which seal will give birth next is uncertain. A prospective mother may fuss and toss a lot of sand, digging ditches on both sides of her round body. And then she may fall asleep.

While you’re watching one, another may give birth down the beach. Gulls announce the births, swirling around to clean up the afterbirth. Nature’s clean-up crew.

Pups may be born head or tail first. The water breaks, and soon a pup emerges.

Recognize the new pup

Newborns have black coats. They are about three feet long and weigh about 70 pounds. They soon plump up on their mothers’ nourishing milk. They’ll nurse for a month. In the last few days of nursing, the mothers mate with one or more males. They stop nursing the pup, who now weighs 250 pounds or more, and soon return to the ocean.

They need to feed, because they haven’t had anything to eat since before they arrived at the beach. They lose about a third of their body weight nursing that pup. It’s time to build up their blubber to support development of next year’s pup.

After giving this year’s pup a head start, they go on their annual short migration. They will return in two or three months, fatter, to molt their skin.

Wildlife viewing requires patience. Pregnant females will continue to arrive on the beach, into February. Check the live webcam for beach conditions,

Bulls on alert

Dominant bulls, who rested peacefully next to their brothers last summer, are now ready to take on all comers. Watch as one bull surfs onto the sand. Bulls that scurry away are less dominant. The ones who stand their ground are considering defending their turf.

The stand-off may come to blows. The goal of battling is to establish the dominance hierarchy, which actually reduces conflict. Bulls who acknowledge the dominant beachmaster won’t challenge him, and he won’t need to fight every bull on the beach. But some will. A beachmaster can be deposed by a tougher bull at any point during the breeding season.

Bulls have distinctive individual vocalizations. They recognize each other. If they have fought before, they won’t challenge each other again. They also recognize each other by sight.

But there’s always a new bull on the beach to raise the issue. There’s a lot at stake. Only the most dominant bulls get to breed.

Bulls retreat to other beaches

Some less dominant bulls hang out on the beach, evading the beachmaster’s notice and attempting to sneak in and mate. Sometimes, they do!

Others leave the breeding beaches behind and swim to other beaches to heal their battle wounds and rest. Visitors may encounter them, especially at Hearst Memorial Beach at San Simeon Cove. Friends of the Elephant Seal docents watch over seals and beachgoers, advising on how to avoid the seals when they are resting on the sand or in the lagoon.

It’s an exciting and unusual experience, coming in such close contact with huge wild animals. Bulls may challenge each other, or simply ignore humans when they decide to move across the beach or return to the ocean.

NOAA Marine Life Viewing Guidelines ( advise no closer than 50 yards, half a football field. Keep the dog leashed so as not to annoy them. Don’t get between two seals, who may decide to charge each other, or a seal and the water, in case he suddenly decides to go back into the waves.

The seals can be dangerous, so give them plenty of space. Sharing the beach with them is a privilege. And visitors get to return home with a great story!




Saturday, November 18, 2023

Titans of Piedras Blancas

Bulls arrive for breeding season

Elephant seal bulls begin arriving around Thanksgiving for the winter breeding season. They are at their largest physical bulk, after months of feeding along the North American continental shelf. They’ll need it to get through to March without eating.

Look for long noses and big pink chest shields on massive bodies. They surf out onto the sand, their massive weight now subject to gravity instead of supported by water. Welcome to life on land!

Smaller seals are juveniles, still resting on the beach from their Fall Haul Out. They will soon leave on their own migration. They’ll feed and grow bigger, to return next spring. Seals spend most of their lives at sea.

No feeding here

Bulls stop feeding when they leave their foraging grounds and head south for the breeding beaches. They’ve been eating fish and squid, gaining as much as 28 pounds a day, since they left the Central Coast in August and September. They need enough blubber to survive 100 days or more, to the end of the breeding season. They are huge now, but will get thin over the coming months.

Every bull on the beach is a survivor in a tough system. As few as one percent of male pups born reach breeding age.

Surviving isn’t enough to guarantee breeding, though. They jockey for dominance and breeding rights. Two thirds of the bulls, the less dominant ones, don’t get to breed at all.

Why they fight

Early arrivals find enough beach to separate them. Some pick fights anyway. You may see seals fighting.

To get breeding rights, males fight for dominance and to defend their harem of females. They arrive looking for a fight and it only gets worse. Size is an advantage, but not the only factor. The alpha bull, the beachmaster, is frequently challenged by other bulls. He can lose a battle and be replaced by another tough guy.

Beachmasters are vigilant about chasing other bulls away from the harem, but it’s a constant challenge. All bulls are focused on mating, regardless of their status in the beach social hierarchy. Lower ranking bulls sneak around the harem and try to mate with females. They sometimes get away with it.

Non-breeding beaches

Less dominant bulls who lose battles may leave the beach and take refuge on other, non-breeding beaches. Look for them at San Simeon Cove, along Moonstone Beach, and other quiet, sandy places. It’s like the old joke: Where does a two-ton seal go? Anywhere he wants.

Females give birth

Females start to arrive in December, with the first pup born around the middle of the month. More females arrive in January and February, up to around 5,000 at the height of the season.

But they aren’t ready to mate until after they’ve nursed that pup for a month or so. They come into estrus, like dogs.

“Of course, these animals are dangerous,” writes elephant seal researcher Burney LeBoeuf in Elephant Seals: Pushing the Limits on Land and at Sea. “Males will run over you as if you were a piece of furniture in their way.”

Speakers Bureau

If your organization would like to learn more about the seals Friends of the Elephant Seal offers free speakers. To arrange a speaker, call the FES office, (805) 924-1628 or request a speaker through the website, The Speaker’s Bureau Coordinator will respond and set up a date. 


Thursday, November 16, 2023

New wildlife tags help Central Coast researchers understand impacts of offshore wind projects

Piedras Blancas Light Station has a new electronic wildlifetracking system, to collect data on small birds and bats, and is the site for a new acoustic bat monitoring project. The data are important for understanding how the Offshore Wind projects may affect these smaller species.


The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is an international collaborative research network that tracks birds, bats and insects with tiny transmitters. The tags transmit location data back to scientists, who then can use it for research and education. The data inform ecology and conservation of these migratory species.  Motus is a program of Birds Canada in partnership with collaborating researchers and organizations. Data collected are shared among all researchers.

Motus allows us to track species too small to tag with traditional GPS tags,” said Laney White, U.S. Geological Survey's Western Ecological Research Center biologist.

USGS Western Ecological Research Center biologist Laney White drives a Zodiac to one of the USGS Ashy Storm Petrel study sites (photo credit: J. Felis).

The Piedras Blancas installation is funded for three years by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a long-term investment. The system can be used to monitor bird and bat movements. In the future, Motus may be used to study animal movement around the turbines off the West Coast. In Central and Southern California, the USGS is in the process of building 25 stations.

The tiny battery-powered tag can weigh less than half a gram, less than the weight of a paperclip, and costs about $200. It can be glued to the bird, sutured, or attached with a harness or leg band. The batteries can be solar powered and last years.

“Until you’ve got a bird in hand, you can’t always tell which method will work,” Ms. White said.

Cassin’s Auklets, Ashy Storm-Petrels, and Western Gulls will be tagged. Western Gulls will also get GPS tags that can detect Motus tags, making them mobile receiving stations and expanding the network’s reach offshore.

USGS wildlife biologist Emma Kelsey holds a Cassin's Auklet in the Channel Islands (photo: J. Felis).

In less rigorous environments, the tags can last a bird’s lifetime. In the salty marine environment, they probably won’t last that long.

The system needs international collaboration with Canada and Mexico, because birds and bats migrate across international boundaries.

Acoustic bat monitoring

Bats hunt the insects that are their food with sonar echolocation.

“Insects are nimble,” said USGS acoustic specialist Bethany Schulze. “They are good at evading capture.”

Globally, bats play a significant ecological role, in pest control, pollination, seed dispersal and as bioindicators of environmental toxins. The bat in the coal mine, as it were.

Hoary bats, a migratory species, could be affected by the West Coast Wind Projects proposed for 20-30 miles offshore. Motus wildlife tracking and acoustic bat detectors can provide data to document how offshore bat activity is different from coastal; which species migrate offshore; whether their migration is seasonal; and ultimately, whether the wind turbines will affect them.

Piedras Blancas is the first of 10 coastal acoustic monitoring sited set up. The solar-powered acoustic bat detector is holding up well so far, Ms. Schulze said.

All 20 coastal and offshore sites are already collecting data, from 0.3 to 120 km offshore. They are on exposed areas at the edge of the ocean. They record bats calling as they fly past.

“I just deployed our last site yesterday (November 4), so now all 20 sites are collecting data!” she wrote in an email.

Target species are Hoary bats, Mexican free-tailed bats, Western Red bats, and Silver-haired bats. California bats feed mainly on insects.


Ms. Schulze follows the bats where they go. One Hoary bat – “they’re the big fluffy ones” – was tagged in Marin County, then tracked to north of Sacramento before it flew north to Washington state.


Collaborating with the U.S. Coast Guard, she’s been lowered in a basket by helicopter to deploy an acoustic bat detector on a rock in the middle of the ocean.


She and the rest of the Western Ecological Research Team will continue to follow the bats for several more years.