The elephant seal is the largest of all pinnipeds. Adult bulls can exceed two tons
in weight and ten feet in length. Like many marine mammals, it was hunted to near
extinction in the 19th century.
Until recently, the huge seals lived in isolated areas far away from humans.
Then, amazingly, in 1990, they started colonizing the unspoiled beaches and coves
just south of Point Piedras Blancas on the California coast. Their chosen location
is just off of the Pacific Coast Highway (California Highway 1), a few miles north of the famous Hearst Castle at San Simeon.
Tourists may simply pull off the road into a parking lot, take a short walk, and
observe hundreds and sometimes thousands of elephant seals. It is a sight one would
normally associate with some exotic locale in a National Geographic.
The photo, above left, is taken from an open beach adjacent to the south
parking lot. Note in the closeup, right, the huge snout which is the trademark of the elephant seal.
From the north parking lot, an informal trail heads north along the lovely
low bluffs. The walking is easy and very pleasant. The grass and herbal plants
such as mustard and fennel provide a delightful aroma mixed with the smell
of the sea. It is private property but the landowner has granted visitors
a "right to pass" and has installed an easy to climb gate. (Check on the current posting
before entering the property.) Here lonely coves and
pocket beaches grace the coast. The old Point Piedras Blancas lighthouse adds to
the scenery (left edge of photo at left, closeup right). And the seals are almost
The numbers of elephant seals were smaller in the coves than on the open beach.
As many of these seals appeared to also be substantially larger, we thought they might be the senior
bulls keeping to themselves. Note in the photo, left, the two bulls who are mock fighting.
During breeding season (December through February) the large, dominant bulls
will fight for control of the harems.
At this time of year (July), all of the seals at Piedras Blancas are males. The females
head up to Alaska to give birth to, and nurse, their pups. They all return in the
fall and restart their annual cycle.
The photo, right, shows a huge bull surfacing and letting forth his battle cry.
This was by far and away the largest seal we observed. It was bigger by half than
any of the others. Perhaps he was the senior bull for the whole colony.
The call of the elephant seal is actually rather humorous. It sounds exactly
like nonstop human belching!
It is not clear why these reclusive creatures would suddenly take residence in
a place where hordes of people can readily approach them. Possibly it is the
unspoiled nature of this section of coast. The shore has been declared a
wildlife refuge from south of San Francisco to Cambria. Human usage of the
shore and offshore areas is strictly limited. Perhaps they come because people
are now enlightened enough to enjoy watching them and otherwise leave them alone.
Volunteers from a group known as the Friends of the Elephant Seals are present
most of the time to answer visitors' questions. Their other role is to keep
an eye on the seals and make sure no humans bother them.
At a time when our society faces hard issues such as the rapid pace of development
and pollution, a wildlife success story is extremely heartening. If you come here,
please just observe the seals from a safe distance, and do not dusturb them in any way!
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