One of the highlights of our trip along the Big Sur coast of California in late February was watching the northern elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, north of San Simeon. More than 7,000 elephant seals live here, making it one of the largest rookeries on the California coast. This seal is a conservation success story. After being hunted almost to extinction for their blubber, the population has rebounded from 100 to 150,000 animals. About 124,000 northern elephant seals are found along the California coast.
We saw hundreds of seals on this beach, basking in the morning sun. These large mammals spend most of their lives at sea, coming ashore only to molt, give birth, and mate. There was a good crop of pups, most of which had been weaned after a month of feasting on their fasting mothers’ milk. However, several were still trying to nurse while we were watching. When the mother tried to move away, the pup would follow; sometimes resorting to biting her in frustration. The pups spend another couple of months on the beach after weaning, learning how to swim and dive before heading out to sea.
The females are ready to mate during the last few days of nursing and the dominant males make sure that other males stay away from their “harem”. Male elephant seals have a pronounced long nose and a thickened area over their chest. They will spend up to 3 months on the beach fasting so that they can mate with as many females as possible. They allow a “beta bull” to help prevent other males from accessing the females. In return, this assistant may have a chance to mate with a female while the alpha male is otherwise occupied.
A boardwalk has been constructed above the beach to allow viewing at a safe distance – for both the seals and the humans. Well worth a stop in the winter months while the seals are in residence!