The Natural World COVID-19 and the Elephant Seals

Written by Ruth Ann Angus

January 15, 2021

Being sequestered once again at home, the question was if COVID-19 going to keep me from viewing the elephant seals this year? I decided no — the best times to visit are during late January, April and October — but knew some real caution was needed.

The elephant seal rookery near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse has been a major attraction ever since 1990 when the first sighting of a small group of seals was noticed lounging on the beach just south of the lighthouse. Right away people took risks trespassing through a cattle field and onto the beach to observe these huge sea mammals. Thought to be extinct for many years, a small group of seals were discovered on Guadalupe Island off Baja, California. All the elephant seals on the west coast are descendants of this group.

With the development of the Friends of the Elephant Seals and the construction of a viewing boardwalk, and docents to help, the public has been kept from entering onto the beach. The seals grew in popularity and are now a major tourist attraction. So, how to go and view them safely during a pandemic?

My solution was to choose the trail north of the main viewing area. This gives a much different view of the seals but if one wishes they can walk the trail all the way over to the main viewing site. I parked in the small lot and donned my mask, grabbed my camera, and began to walk. I was immediately greeted by a large crow landing on a fence post who demanded some attention. To satisfy the noisy visitor, I took his picture and went on my way.

The trail brought me along the rocky coast to the edge of the upper beach where plump seal bodies lay in the sand. It was early yet in the season and no large males were in sight. December is the month that all the action begins with females giving birth to squirmy black pups while one or more huge males guard them.

The alpha male is the beachmaster and gathers as many females as he can into his harem. Most of the time he appears to be either sleeping and/or flipping sand onto his back. But let an invading male of equal size venture out of the surf and it is time for a showdown. Males must fight to gain the right to romance. Why this is so in nature is beyond me, but it is spectacular to watch. This isn’t play fighting either. Blood is drawn and many a male goes the rest of his life scarred from the contact with the wicked teeth of his opponent.

A view of elephant seal rookery from upper trail.
They lie like lumps in the sand.

Sometime after giving birth females are ready to mate again. Now the alpha bull takes advantage of his position to mate with the most females. Within a month after giving birth, females are impregnated. The female heads out to sea leaving her now plump, molting pup on shore.

The nice thing about this upper area is there are a lot less people so keeping social distance is easy. Also, you can choose to walk north over the hill from the parking lot and get a great view of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse.

A female seal that had been captured and equipped with a variety of scientific apparatus for studying purposes.

Many years ago, when I was doing photographs for some of the scientists studying the elephant seals, I saw a strange female seal coming out of the ocean. She was burdened by several pieces of equipment that were attached to her head and back with what looked like white plaster. This seal had been captured and equipped with a variety of scientific apparatus to study things like what elephant seals eat, what depths they dive to, and whether they are attacked by sharks. I felt a bit sorry for this gal because the other seals gave her a bad time nosing her off the beach and back into the surf. I guess they just didn’t like her outfit!

Don’t let COVID-19 keep you from viewing one of nature’s most interesting and amazing events. Wear your mask and keep your distance and enjoy one more thing that makes living on the Central Coast of California special.

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