Ode to the Northern Elephant Seal

Late-November to mid-February, Elephant Seals are ashore, birthing and breeding

Exciting things are happening in the elephant seal world this time of year. They are busy mating and birthing. The older, more mature males are baring their scarred chest shields, battling one another for dominance, for alpha status. A quick nip on the proboscis (if he can get close enough to do it) may be what it takes for one male to back off from a fight.

Establishing alpha status and territorial right in order to mate is what these males are most interested in doing right now. Fighting then, is merely a means to that end. The loser usually acknowledges that he has lost and retreats. Happily, it is the rare fight that ends in death.

We here on the California coast are fortunate to have several northern elephant seal rookeries nearby. Closest to the Bay Area are the Ano Nuevo rookeries. Further afield, out by Big Sur, are the Piedras Blancas rookeries. These are two of the three to four habitats where the public can view these animals along the shore. (Elephant seals spend most of their life foraging, constantly moving and diving, out in the ocean.)

I volunteer as an outdoor docent at the Ano Nuevo State Park and lead hikes to the rookeries there. It is a spectacular place and is prime real estate for the seals. We do our best to accommodate them in their habitat, ever mindful that we are visitors in their homes.

Having traveled some 3,000 to 5,000 miles to breed and birth on these shores, these animals need to conserve their energy. The distance from New York to the Bay Area is about 3,000 miles. That is how far the females of the species travel (from open ocean north and west of California) to get here. The males travel even further, nearly 5,000 miles from around the Aluetians to the Bay Area and its environs. Imagine how tired they must be when they get here! Visitors, therefore, need to take great care not to disturb or harass them for to do so is to force them to waste precious energy.

Some other breeding grounds for the elephant seals are the many islands off Baja, Mexico. These areas are not accessible to the public but if you want to see what crazy beautiful sights and sounds are to be had when visiting an elephant seal habitat, watch the following short video, filmed at Piedras Blancas: http://www.elephantseal.org/Videos/Elephant%20seals%20of%20Piedras%20Blancas.swf

Coming In

He moves faster than the other,

a silvery white juvenile,

who is less than a fourth his size.

They shuffle and rest

each moving to his own rhythm.

Solitarily alone

he makes his way.

Soon to be mothers

have settled in

readying for birth

waiting

for him.

You can read more about the northern elephant seal and its “schedule” at the Big Sur tourism Website:

http://www.bigsurcalifornia.org/elephant-seals.html

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