Thursday, January 10, 2013

Northern Elephant Seals

Leaving the Sea Otters we had a few more stops to make and my friends promised I would enjoy the next two places as well. As we were driving up the coast we spotted a few cars along the road and of course we stopped to see what everyone was taking photos of. My friends already suspected that they were the wild Zebras from Hearst Castle. Strange seeing them in the field with the cows.

Northern Elephant Seals near San Simeon at the Piedras Blancas rookery was our next stop. They arrive between late November and March to this land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest. I was told that there would be many more to come and this was just the beginning.

"Ugh, I knew I shouldn't have eaten that entire desert."

On land Elephant Seals huddle together and sleep much of the time, eating nothing while on the beach. At sea it is a different matter entirely. They dive constantly for 20 to 30 minutes at a time searching for food with only a few minutes on the surface to catch another breath.

The males and females take different migration routes. Males swim over 10,000 miles a year following the continental shelf looking for food. The females head out into the open ocean in search of squid and fish. Females are also deeper divers and have been recorded to a depth of nearly a mile.

"Hi, am I in the right place?"

Males are designed for battle with sharp teeth and tough chest shields.

"Who you calling ugly!"

Here you can see the battle scares on this male. Notice the sand that he has flipped up onto his body to keep cool, with all that blubber they must be incredibly hot.

"I need a nap."
Sometime all it takes in an incredibly large bellow to back down a potential challenger. The beach master (dominant male) who wins earns the right to mate with a harem of 10 to 60 females.

"Yep, all the women love me."

Watch how he does it in this video. They seem to be always exhausted which is understandable since they usually live in the water where they are much more buoyant. It is probably much like an astronaut returning from space after spending days in weightlessness.

"Let's race, on you mark, ready, set, go!"

I just missed the actually birth of this new pup that weighs between 60-80 pounds. You can see from the video below that it is still shiny and some of the afterbirth is present.

They are very protective of their newborns and aggressively guard against intruders. Below you can see another female approach and the mother defending her baby. I am not sure why the other mother was so aggressive. The crowd gasps in horror at the site.

The mother and her pup bond very quickly after the birth and become familiar with both their sound and smell which in turn helps them stay together during the four-week nursing period.

Here is an older pub nursing.

Once the pups have been weaned the mothers are ready to breed again.

Growing new skin, something all mammals do, requires circulating blood just under the skin to nourish the new cells. Because the seals live in near freezing water and their body temperature is near ours, growing skin at sea would mean losing heat to the ocean to an unsustainable degree. So they come on shore to grow the new skin and shed the old along with all their hair. The old skin is yellow-brown. These are last years pups.


1 comment:

Potomac Valley Nature Writing Group Reading List said...

Very creative presentation.Humorous AND well researched. Love the "Am I in the right place" shot.