As part of the recent trip to Morro Bay, I spent a morning at Piedras Blancas photographing the Northern Elephant Seal rookery. The seals have a complex social hierarchy and are fascinating creatures to watch; and honestly, it doesn’t hurt that in some ways they are incredibly funny to look at. That said, they aren’t something want to to be near when they’re annoyed. If you want to learn more, the Friends of the Seals have a good introduction.
Piedras Blancas (near the lighthouse, a bit north of Hearst Castle) is a relatively new rookery. As the seals have been recovering from almost being wiped out for their blubber, the species has slowly repopulated the coast. Piedras Blancas first started seeing seals in the 1990′s, and now the herd has over 1,500 individuals. it’s not as well-known as Ano Nuevo, but it’s accessible and you can get quite close to the action (but fortunately, you’re up on a bluff, so they can’t come get you, and it discourages idiots from trying to get too close).
Male seals start arriving on the beach in late November and staking out territory for what will become their harem. Female seals arrive a while after that. They typically give birth a week after arriving, with most births happening the last two weeks of January. About three weeks they give birth, they go into heat and the males will impregnate them again. The females will nurse their pup for about a month. When born, they weigh 60-80 pounds and will quadruple their weight in that first month.
While on the beach, all of the animals are fasting and females will lose up to 1/3 of their body weight. After nursing the pup, they abandon it and head for the sea to feed. The pups will stay on the beach another two months before venturing into the sea on their own.
The seals will return to the beach in late spring or summer to moult their skin, and then head back to sea. They rarely touch land except during the mating season.
Male sea lions are significantly larger than the females: females can weigh in at 900-1800 pounds, a fully grown adult male can tip the scales at 5000 pounds.
The sound and (if you’re downwind) smell of a sea lion rookery is impressive. The best way to describe the sounds that come out of sea lions as all of those sounds an eight year old makes that amuse their friends and annoy their parents; sea lion noises sound an awful lot like massive farts and burps, as well as how’s and screams.
This is my third year coming down and photographing the seals. I find the chaos and noise of the place fascinating. The animals have a lot of personality, and if you get there at the right time, there can be a lot going on. The best time is to get there a couple of hours before the peak of a strong high tide, because the tide will compress the animals on the beach and push them closer together, which is going to trigger arguments. The last couple of weeks of January, especially if timed with the King tides or close to them, seems best.
This trip, while I was there, we had one birth, multiple matings, and a number of minor fights, plus one major fight between two huge alphas that went on for minutes and ended up with them in the sea. There’s a lot of grumping going on among the smaller males, and between females, where if a female moves through another’s territory, they’ll argue, and sometimes, the unhappiness is emphasized by a bite to the tail flippers.
When the alpha males see a lesser male trying to sneak over to a female that’s gone into heat, they barrel over to protect their harem. They’re not particularly worried about what’s in the way, either, and if a pup doesn’t get out of the way fast enough, it’ll get trampled. Injuries and deaths occur every season. Mom and pup can also get separated by these rushes, and then have to find each other. The mom and the pup identify each other by vocalizations which can go on until they get back in contact.