An enormous male elephant seal with a huge proboscis (snout) emerges from the Pacific Ocean to charge at another male seal on the beach careless enough to invade his territorial harem. The alpha male lifts himself up with his front flippers, and heaves his massive 5000 pound bulk forward on the sand with astonishing speed. He then pulls his front body up from the sand, upward dog style, and extends his neck upward to show off the huge protuberance that is his snout in a challenging manner. Soon the interloper skedaddles in a similar style up the beach to safer mating grounds.
We are admiring the stunning bluffs and sea views of the Elephant Seal Rookery, just north of the Hearst Castle Ranch in California, which draws thousands of thrilled nature lovers each year. The viewing area, a railed-off boardwalk, allows us to watch from a close but safe distance the life cycles of thousands of baby to adult elephant seals, lolling and swimming on the beach below.
We took the dogs, two adorable dachshunds, and drove about 12 miles north from Cambria up the coast hugging Highway 1. Passing the Hearst Ranch, we turned in to the Elephant Seal Rookery, parked and leashed the dogs for a walk along the boardwalk. It was delightful to watch a group of hundreds of plump silvery pups lazing indolently on the beach below, flipping sand onto their hides to cool off. The leashed dachshunds watched the baby seals from the boardwalk with bright happy eyes, and barked their excited approval, but were equally impressed with the scenery, the seaside smells, the people, and of course the other dogs they met on the wooden boardwalk.
These elephant seals began to arrive here on the shores of Hearst San Simeon State Park in 1990 to mate, give birth, wean and molt. It soon became a popular bonus tourist attraction to the nearby Hearst Castle, and gave rise to the Friends of the Elephant Seal (FES), who wanted to ensure that nature and human interaction was safe for both. The state moved the highway away from the beach area, and a parking lot and viewing area was constructed, with FES providing blue jacketed on-site docents for interpretation.
The solitary male elephant seals spend eight to ten months at sea feeding up to 3000 miles away — in Alaska, for instance. They usually dive for 15 – 20 minutes to a depth of 1000 – 5000 feet. The male seals return to the rookery from November to March to mate, while the females arrive from December to January, join a harem, give birth, and mate. The female seal, much smaller than the average 5000 pound male, gives birth to one pup, and nurses it from 70 to 300 pounds, when the pup is officially called a “weaner”. The female then mates and leaves the rookery and her pup to return to the sea, where she forages for squid and fish on her long migration journey.
The seals fast for the entire stay at these bluffs, just south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. The pups molt for one month, between April and September, and eventually venture out to sea on their own, returning to the rookery in the fall. Pups lie on the beach, molting for extended periods. Only 30 per cent of the seals survive into adulthood. On the beach we saw scores of California condors feeding on dead pups and various bits of carcass. Sharks and orcas are also natural predators of the elephant seals.
Prime viewing season for elephant seals are January, April and October. The FES hold an Elephant Seal festival every January in Cambria’s East Village. If you go, visit the FES store and visitor center in San Simeon, a few miles south of the rookery.
For more information, visit the FES site at www.elephantseal.org.
Nearby: Hearst Castle, Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, San Simeon village, Cambria.