Seal Beach

Elephant Seal_SanSimeon-CA_LAH_0155What are huge and blubbery and make outlandish snorting sounds? And what were they doing on a beach in California?

We recently spent a week back in our old haunts—Silicon Valley, Monterey and Pacific Grove, the central California coast, southern California. Aside from some great times visiting friends and an abundance of scrumptious meals, the trip mostly reminded me how grateful I am to live in Colorado now. However, I do miss the ocean!

Elephant Seal_SanSimeon-CA_LAH_0017Wanting to maximize the view, we headed south on Highway 1—sheer drop-offs, Turkey Vultures overhead, pounding surf far below. After a long day of white knuckles and eyes averted from the edge of the cliff (I hate cliff edges), we finally descended to almost sea level just north of San Simeon (home of Hearst’s Castle). I was thinking of a fish dinner and comfy bed when I noticed a sign pointing to a viewing area. We pulled off to watch the sunset when I realized that the beach below was packed with large, dun bodies. They were shaped like torpedoes, or maybe slugs.

All sorts of weird grunting filled the air, punctuated by resonating snorts. Seals! Elephant seals! (You can hear them here.)

Elephant Seal_SanSimeon-CA_LAH_9994Within seconds I had my camera and lens attached to one another and the tripod, and I was heading down the trail to a low overlook. Elephant seals interpret an erect posture as a threat, so I definitely didn’t want to be walking on the beach. These animals are big! The trail traversed the sandstone cliffs, offering safe but excellent views.

Elephant Seal_SanSimeon-CA_LAH_9943-001Incredibly agile in the water, true seals can’t turn their back flippers forward, so they are unable to walk on land. (The animals in the circus-like acts are sea lions, not seals.) Instead, they hump along, reminding me of enormous, alien larvae out of some bad science fiction movie.

Elephant Seal_SanSimeon-CA_LAH_9895Most of the animals warming in the sun were females and their offspring. Elephant seals, like many other animals, come together in harems guarded by a single, dominant male. The hollow gurgling we were hearing was the male reminding any upstarts that he was king. His large nose acts as an echo chamber, and the results are impressively uncanny. If threats don’t work, it may come to blows, but that’s pretty rare. There’s no benefit to the males seriously hurting one another.

Elephant Seal_SanSimeon-CA_LAH_0056Many of the young males were beginning to practice their sparring technique. They lack the big shnozz of adults, but the rearing and dodging behavior marked them as typical adolescents.

Born in early winter, elephant seals spend the next several months learning to swim and catch fish and other prey. They only nurse for the first month, but that milk must be pretty rich as they gain ten pounds per day! The babies had grown quite a bit by the time we saw them in April, although they were still noticeably smaller than the adults. The rest of the year, the seals are at sea.

A hundred years ago these marine mammals—like so many others—had been hunted almost to extinction. With protection, the population has recovered and is now close to prehistoric levels. Seeing so many seals really made my day.

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