Saturday, December 25, 2010

High Tides, Alpha Males, Few Adult Females

Similar to last year, this winter's incoming tides have once again, been extremely high, completely covering many of the beaches coveted by the elephant seals for the birthing season. Unlike this time last year, though, our storms have been of the tropical rain-drenching kind from the south, mixing with some southward bound chilly northern fronts.

Maybe the change in weather pattern is the reason why there are currently fewer pregnant adult female elephant seals on shore this early in the birthing season than in years gone by. As a result, there have so far only been a handful of births.

In contrast, there seem to be many more large adult male elephant seals in the extreme heavy-weight class, who, so far, appear to be much more mellow toward each other than in previous years at this time. For the most part, they've hung up the do-not-disturb signs and have been spending much of their shore-time sleeping instead of engaging in their traditional bloody, dragged-out fights over territory.

For those who like the excitement of elephant seal fights, some sparring sub-adult males can still be spotted tussling away here and there.

The few remaining tan-to-gold colored youngsters are spending their time sleeping, half-heartedly participating in their mock fights, or moving as fast as their small bodies will allow out of the path of the amorous large males.

For more photos, click here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Giants Are Starting to Go into Action

The famed giants of the elphant seal world are starting to sleep less and become more active on shore as fight time draws near. In fact, even a few threat-claps can be heard at dusk as these huge males prepare themselves for the inevitable battles over territory.

In the meantime, sub-adult males continue their often quite ferocious dominance battles in the bays of the pocket beaches as well as on land. In fact, gangs of six to eight sub-adult males can often be seen working together to antagonize smaller elephant seals.

The pregnant females do their best to stay well away from the warring factions trying to get plenty of rest in anticipation of their fast approaching birthing and suckling season.

Surprisingly enough, there are still quite a few weaners and other youngsters still hanging around the beaches resplendent in their golden-colored fur.

For more photos, click here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

BIG Adult Male Elephant Seals Starting to Show Up


Taking a well-deserved nap

As the Fall Haul-Out heads to its close for this year, a smattering of the large adult male elephants seals can already be seen sleeping and snoring on several of the beaches along the central California coast.

So far, the bloody and sometimes protracted fights for territory have not yet begun. This may in part be due to the fact that these huge males are quite exhausted from their almost continual search for food while at sea and need to sleep so they can recoup their massive strength. Another contributory fact might be that there are so few adult males here this early that territory is not yet an issue.

Quite a few pregnant females can also be observed resting on the beaches along with the remaining sparring sub-adult males as well as more than a few left-over weaners and two- and three-year-old youngsters.

The fur of these youngsters, which has changed to a beautiful golden or pale tan color, will be shed during next year's molting season.

Most of the elephant seals look well-fed this year, and their fur lacks the blemishes of last year. Also, the amount of cookie-cutter shark bites seems less than in time gone by.

As the days in December roll by, more and more adult males will be coming ashore and the showdowns for territory will take place more and more frequently until the pregnant females arrive and start to give birth, with the first births coming maybe as early as the middle of December.

To see more photos, click here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Fall Haul-Out Continues

As the Fall Haul-Out for 2010 continues, different elephant seals keep coming ashore for some R&R while those that have already spent close to a month on land leave in search of food.

After the young male elephant seals have recovered from their trip to the central coast beaches of California, they start their fights for dominance.

However, the female elephant seals of all ages that come ashore at this time of year do so to get some rest trying to keep their distance from the young and actively aggressive young males.

Expectant onlookers can almost always be assured of being witness to the varying shows of aggression provided by the young male elephant seals in their almost continual fights for dominance both on land and in the water.

All too soon, however, these younger elephant seals will be off to sea again looking for more food. Then, in about six weeks, the big male elephant seals will start to come ashore and the battles for temporary territory will begin.

For more photos, click here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Time for the Yearlings

With only a couple of large male elephant seals still on the beach, the emphasis now is on this year's weaners and two- and three-year olds as they hustle ashore to begin their Fall Haul-Out rituals.

Like the older elephant seals, they joust, albeit with less ferocity, disturb each other for a variety of reasons, sleep, and swim in the shallows.

When the older elephant seals come shore, they usually spend quite a bit of time in deep sleep. The younger ones, however, seem to be more filled with vim and vigor !

To see more photos, click here.

To visit my elephant seal website, click here.

To see elephant seal fight videos on YouTube, click here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

August at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony

Most of the adult male elephant seals have completed their catastrophic molt, and many have already 'set sail' for their feeding grounds in order to gain the necessary bulk for their winter stay of about 3 months starting in December.

Early though it is, a few weaners and yearlings have already come ashore for their fall haulout, joining the remaining adult males.

As we progress toward September, more and more youngsters as well as adult females and young males will come ashore to rest for about a month before setting off to feed again.

To see more photos, click here.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Adult Male Elephant Seals Molting and Jousting

Now is the time of year when the adult male elephant seals show up at the beaches at Piedras Blancas on the central coast of California to molt and eagerly participate in many of the jousts/fights which occur whenever the males congregate during their shore-times.

These fights, which are mainly for domination, begin when they're pups of just a few weeks old and continue throughout their lives.

Day by day, more and more of the huge adult males are making their way up onto the sandy beaches, sometimes having to fight their way ashore to obtain a prime spot.

The males go through a ritualistic series of specific motions before seriously physically attacking another male. At this time of year however, the fights are neither prolonged nor severe as the males need to conserve energy for the month's long stay ashore to complete their annual catastrophic molt.

Sometimes they fight for another spot on the beach, or to move up the ladder of hierarchy, or just to prove who's more macho. No matter the reason, these jousts/fights are not anywhere near as bloody as the ones that take place for territorial rights in the winter.

To see more photos, click here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Unusual Amount of Adult Female Elephant Seals

Strangely enough, as we near the middle of May, the amount of adult female elephant seals ashore to molt still seems to be increasing.

( Unconfirmed sources claim that there are many more adult females on the beaches at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony this year than in previous years.)

Maybe due to the extreme overcrowding on the part of the adult females, the remaining few of this year's weaners can only be observed on the small pocket beaches that the adult females have chosen not to occupy.

Another point of interest is that the vast majority of juvenile elephant seals also appear to be female this year instead of having about a 50-50 mix.

True, a few juvenile males can be seen mock sparring on the beaches and in the shallows. A couple of sub-adult males can also be found roaring on the beach or in the shallows.

If I were a scientist, I would be wondering why there not only seems to be far fewer juvenile male elephant seals to date this spring, but why the usual male competetiveness also seems to be absent.

Click here to see more photos.

Click here to visit my elephant seal website.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Catastrophic Molt

Prime beach space is beginning to be hard to find as more and more large elephant seals work their way up onto the beaches to join the already present weaners. These weaners, who are further honing their swimming, diving, and foraging skills now have to try to stay out of the way of the older elephant seals as hierarchy rules.

Over the last couple of weeks both adult female elephant seals as well as juvenile males ( juvenile male = 1-4 years old ) and juvenile females ( juvenile female = 1-2 years old ) have been crowding onto the beaches of central California to begin their annual catastrophic molt. ( The sub-adult males and adult males will come a little later on for their turn.)

What is a catastrophic molt ? Over a period of many months, elephant seal fur changes color from a gray to dark brown to a lighter brownish hue or even a pale tan.

Maybe this change in fur pigment indicates that the fur becomes less oily over time causing the elephant seal to shed its fur and attached skin about once a year. Also, maybe because the elephant seal spends so much of its life in the salty ocean water, its fur simply has to be replenished as the salts dry it out. Another factor might be that as the elephant seal expands both in length and in girth, it needs to shed its outer layer much like a snake does.

The fur and skin peel off in both larger and smaller pieces revealing the fresh new layer of gray fur below. ( See extra photos.)

During the month this molt takes to complete, scientists believe the molting elephant seals eat nothing even though they often enter the ocean during this period.

Click here to see more photos.

Click here to visit my elephant seal website.

Click here to send a free elephant seal e-card.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Weaners Swimming and Foraging in the Creeks, Tide-Pools and Ocean

The active weaners are now engaged in their all-important water skills such as swimming and foraging as they hone their skills and beach-hop up and down the central California coast.
These days, the weaners are not spending quite as much time sleeping on the beaches conserving energy. Instead, they're proving they are just about as adept in the water as their older relatives.
In the extra photos, you can see some of the antics that these busy youngsters get up to on a regular basis.

Click here to see more photos.

Click here to visit my elephant seal website.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Weaner Time

This time of year is all about weaners ( AKA weaned elephant seal pups )on the beaches of the central coast of California.

With almost all of the females departed out to sea to forage and regain the pounds lost during their birthing and mating time ashore, the weaners are now having to learn how to take care of themselves.

The weaners are not completely without adult supervision though as some watchful and protective adult males remain on the beaches until the weaners get more proficient at swimming and start beach hopping.

Newly weaned weaners, like the older elephant seals, spend a lot of time sleeping while on shore as they're conserving energy and subsisting on their blubber.

As the weaners grow restless however, they spend less and less time sleeping and more time moving around the beaches and bluffs and communicating with each other. Also, as time passes, they start honing their life-essential swimming and foraging skills.

If weaners are to survive and grow to adulthood, it's imperative that they quickly learn how to find food and protect themselves both on land and at sea.

Click here for more photos.

Click here to go to my elephant seal website.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Over-Sized Elephant Seal Weaners

Despite quite a few pups starving to death ( see blog post 2-6-10 ), there also seems to be an inordinate amount of extra large weaners occupying a certain beach on the central coast of California.

The average weaned pup AKA weaner is between 4 and 5 feet long and weighs anywhere from 150lbs to just over 300lbs. ( Bear in mind that when one of these weaners was born a little over a month ago it was 3-4 feet long and weighed 60-80lbs.)

At this one beach, I have been astonished to observe that about 50% of the weaners are extremely huge. Their lengths are 5-6 feet, and they must weigh in at around 500+ lbs.

( Remember, a full-grown adult female is on average 8-9 feet long and weighs anywhere from 800lbs to 1,500lbs....and this is after several years. )

Why have so many weaners grown to this gargantuan size ?

Maybe this phenomenon came about because the moms and their pups became isolated up in the dunes and had plenty of undisturbed nursing time !? Due to the constant high waves and high tides during the merciless winter storms, sheer sand bluff walls were formed keeping the large male elephant seals at bay for several weeks down on the flats of the beach until they were able to wear down the sand walls and climb up into the lofty nursery.

Click here for more photos.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Mating Season Elephant Seal Style

As the females come into heat at the end of the nursing period for their pups, males of all ages come from far and wide to mate with as many females as they can.

Apart from their major problem of getting past the large and savvy alpha male, there's also the matter of the choosy females as some of them are not too keen on males that 'storm' the beach.

The huge size difference between the adult male and the adult female is known as sexual dimorphism, with the giant alpha males often growing to 3 times the size of the adult females.
( Wow...imagine being squashed by one of these titans ! )

Click here for more photos.

Click here for a video of a not too willing female.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Starving to Death

This birthing season has been extremely traumatic for the elephant seal pups and their moms as the unusually strong winter storms and extraordinarily high tides have been battering the beaches of the central coast of California almost non-stop since December, causing the size of the necessary dry beaches to shrink horrifically.

After becoming separated from their moms by the high tides time and again, many desperate elephant seal pups have taken to trying to find milk from other female elephant seals.

Unfortunately for them, the older elephant seal females tend to want to protect their single pup and chase off these motherless, starving pups by barking and/or nipping at them.

However, this year it's also been quite common to see younger females attempting to successfully nourish and care for multiple pups.

Despite this concerted community effort by so many young females, it has been and continues to be heart-breaking to observe countless immature pups starving to death after struggling for days to find enough fat-rich milk to keep them alive.

Click here to see more photos.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Male Elephant Seals Getting Antsy

As the birthing season continues, and more and more suckling pups can be found on the diminished beaches despite the harsh winter storms and devastating high tides, the males are getting more and more eager to mate.

Apart from periodically viciously chasing unwanted male challengers off the portion of the beach they call theirs, the male elephant seals can usually be seen lying on the beaches preserving their strength in preparation for the task of mating with as many females as possible.

In the meantime, the young pups are suckling hard and often, growing fat in the process on their way to becoming weaned pups AKA weaners. ( So far, there are only a handful of weaned pups, born early on in the birthing season in December.)

To add to the mix, the females continue their bickering over space and pups and try to keep ardent males at bay till they come into heat starting a few days before the end of their nursing period of about 28 days.

Click here to see more photos.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Struggling to Survive

This was a long week of furious storms relentlessly pummeling the central California coast with heavy rain squalls, strong gusting winds, and huge waves.
This lengthy stretch of bad weather was really hard on all the elephant seals but the pups were the hardest hit as they were really put to the test to survive not only the elements but also the over-crowded diminishing beach space.

Confronted by the rushing waters from the drainage pipes and the high tides, the pups became confused and tended to panic as they got separated from their moms. It was heart-breaking watching them frantically trying to negotiate the swift-flowing foamy streams of run-off and sea water to get re-united with their frenzied moms. How many pups survived this stormy week is still unknown.

At least this weekend should be a little calmer at the elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas as the storms have taken a couple of days off before their expected return on Monday.

Click here to see more photos.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Just How Do the Moms Protect Their Vulnerable Pups ?

Elephant seal moms are having a extraordinarily hard time this birthing season as the relentless high tides continue to pound the beaches of the central coast of California. ( An unconfirmed report said that as much as 50% of the earliest pups born this season were washed out to sea.)

When the waves come loudly roaring up onto what's left of the already overcrowded small pocket beaches on which some elephant moms have chosen to have their pups, the moms and pups sound the alarm by emitting frantic yelps and barks. With the incoming waves often wreaking chaos amongst the inhabitants of the elephant seal nurseries, frenzied elephant seal moms and pups try to stay together as tempers flare over vanishing safe space.

From what I've observed, the elephant seal moms protect their pups by using their bodies as a barrier by keeping themselves between the incoming water and their pups. They also constantly maneuver themselves and their pups to higher and safer ground, yapping at their pups to follow them. ( Maybe the pups are too heavy at 60-70+lbs to be picked up and moved by the scruff of their necks as a female dog or cat would do to their youngsters.)

The pups themselves also seem to have a natural survival instinct to search out higher ground, whether it be a mound of kelp, a rock, or just the higher beach by the bluff.

Then, there's the ever-protective BIG alpha male keeping a watchful eye on his brood not only trying to keep them safe from the elements but also keeping them unmolested from any hopeful male intruders.

For more photos, click here.

Friday, January 8, 2010

At the Bottom of the Heap

This young elephant seal pup has got herself in a precarious position...stuck underneath two bickering females ! ( She does end up wriggling herself safely free, though, while the females continue their difference of opinion.)

For the most part, the gigantic multi-ton male elephant seals are the ones to get blamed for the squishing of the pups on the crowded birthing beaches, but it certainly looks as though the moms can also be held responsible to some extent.

Now through February is the most exciting time as the beaches along the central coast of California will be filled with a cacophony of sounds from all the elephant seals, from the deep-throated roars of the males to the barking of the females to the shrill cries of the newborn pups. This amazingly diverse array of sounds rises to greet the many, often astonished yet excited, multi-national visitors, eager to catch a close-up glimpse of these fascinating mammals in action.

Click here for more photos.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Newborn Elephant Seal Pups and High Tides

The new decade of 2010 is causing major problems to the elephant seals on the central coast of California. The continuing high tides are taking away precious beach space and bringing imminent danger to the black, fuzzy new born pups as their moms struggle to keep them above the high tide mark. Unlike other types of seals, these adorable young newborn elephant seal pups don't have the strength to swim at birth.

To see more photos, click here.

To see video, click here.