I first visited the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal rookery in 2011, and have been photographing them ever since. I try to visit every year or two, usually in January at the peak of the activity.
Why? I find them a fascinating and complex species with a lot of personality. Piedras Blancas is a location with good access and photography opportunities; unlike the more popular Ano Nuevo here in the Bay Area, the crowds aren’t such that require reservations and tickets, and the locations of the seals don’t require significant hiking, making it a perfect location photography on the fly.
The Northern Elephant Seal (Mirounga Angustirostris) is the second largest seal after the Southern Elephant Seal, with males growing to 15 feet in length and as much as 5,000 pounds, while females are much smaller at 10-12 feet and around 1,000-1,800 pounds. Their name comes from their size and the male’s large nose, which develops as they mature.
There is some seal activity on the beach year round, but the busiest time of the season starts in December when the younger males start arriving, followed by the larger, older males and females. The males stake out territory on the beach and defend it against each other, with size and age usually determining the winner and loser.
Combat tends to be short but intense with the males standing off against each other looking for opportunities to bite and bludgeon.
Younger males can be seriously injured, so as the territory gets carved out by the dominant animals, they will run away rather than challenge the larger males.
The females arrive and stake out a spot of beach. A few days later, they give birth, and they will nurse their pup for about a month. Their only job is to transfer calories to their pup and help it grow and gather enough energy to get to the point it and enter the water.
While nursing, the seals don’t leave the beach, eat or drink. Their bodies are set up to use energy very efficiently, even stopping breathing when still.
Pups weigh about 70 pounds at birth. Over the next four weeks it will grow rapidly to about 300 pounds, 60% of that fat as energy stored up for the next phases of its new life.
Not all of them make survive. The males defending their territory or chasing a female to mate can run over and crush a pup, who can’t get out of the way
About three weeks after giving birth, the female goes into heat. The male controlling the harem in that part of the beach will then move in and mate with her.
Mating is — not consensual.
The females will scream and often throw sand at the male.
The male doesn’t particularly care.
The refuge is a non-stop cacophony of sound.
The males vocalize with what can only be described as a combination of grunts, farts and burps.
The females use a high pitched scream that would be perfect for B-grade horror movies.
There are a lot of arguments among the females as they protect their part of the beach and their pup from those around her.
To protect themselves from the sun, the animals will often cover themselves with sand as a natural sunblock.
The seals are not immune to the effects of man: this seal shows signs of having been entangled in a rope or net for a significant period of time; it’s likely it was removed by humans at some point, given the depth of the scarring it’s unlikely it came off on its own.
After a month of nursing, the pup is weaned. The female is already pregnant and leaves the beach, off to start building up her energy and fat stores for next year. The pups stay on the beach for another two months, growing from the fat stores they built from nursing, and then leave the beach to start an independent life, learning how to move around in their body, swim and hunt in the waters near the beach.
The males stick around, leaving once the females are gone.
The cycle ends for now, until next December, when the seals return again to give birth and carry the species forward. Each animal will return sometime during the year, typically between March and September, to shed their old skin and grow a new one. The rest of the time, these animals are in the water, rarely visiting land.
If you want to browse larger versions of the images, they are available on my Smugmug site.
(Interested in learning more about Piedras Blancas or visiting? Check out the web site of the Friends of the Elephant Seal, an organization that helps manage and protect this refuge. The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal rookery is on the California coast along Highway 1, about 10 minutes north of Hearst Castle and about a 30 minute drive from Morro Bay)