Elephant Seals @ Ano Nuevo
smw, slt has landed back on the west coast of North America for a short end-of-year holiday. The morning after I landed, I had the chance to head down from SF to Ano Nuevo State Park with my cousin’s daughter, who’s recently begun her college career in SF. Ano Nuevo is best know for its large visiting population of elephant seals – enormous, unusual seals of the northern Pacific who were nearly wiped out when Europeans first discovered how easy they were to kill when beached, because they had no natural land-based predators (and thus no land-based fear, let alone defense against guns). After European hunters had decimated whale populations, they found elephant seals a reasonable alternative source of oil for street lamps and other uses, and by early 20th century, there were no more seals hauling themselves out on the beaches of California for their mating, molting, or socializing seasons.
Mercifully a small remnant population of seals remained on a small island off the coast of Baja California. From that remnant population has sprung a newly-robust population that has resumed its historic habits of seasonal haul-outs in various spots along the mainland California coast. The very first, small groups started coming back to the island with the lighthouse-keeper’s house which you’ll see in these photos, in the 1960s or late 1950s. Now there seem to be thousands who haul out for mating, from mid-December through March or so – and then for the molting season (different months for adult males and adult females), the juvenile socializing season and other such things. These are fascinating animals who spend months at sea, then haul out and spend months on land without taking to the water again. We saw the very beginning of mating season – in six more weeks, the beaches will be completely packed with harems dominated by one bull seal – they’re the ones trumpeting loudly, and with scars on their necks. The females delay implantation, and then give birth just after beaching in December…feed their pups ‘til they wean (about four weeks), mate again, and head back to sea for several months to fatten up again, before returning to the beach for molting season. Truly fascinating stuff.
In the slide show just above you’ll see some juveniles hanging out together, and then a one-year-old (or so) coming ashore and wandering up onto the beach. I set that one up so if you follow the sequence of slides, you’ll see the young one emerging from the water, and then shots as it works it flippy-floppy way up onto the beach. The other shots are just general – you’ll see one bull seal trumpeting, but I didn’t have my camera out at the right moments when two were facing off. They don’t physically fight as often as the media would tell you: mostly they just posture and then one backs down, and the most we observed was two bulls trumpeting and staring each other down, ’til the smaller one shrank back and turned away. You’ll also see a rock – truly a rock – that was so distinctively shaped I hypothesized it had to be a petrified part of a (very) large animal’s skeleton – and indeed the ranger confirmed it’s a piece from the back of the skull of an ancient and mighty big whale. Every shot should be informatively named, so you can hover over the image or click on it to see its name. Enjoy.