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The dramatic winter season of the seals has begun. The huge males have arrived on the beaches at the Piedras Blancas viewing site, at the end of their long journey from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska where they have foraged to bulk up for over three months of fasting during the birthing and breeding season. After posturing and fighting to establish their territories, they have settled in (unless larger guys unseat them). The pregnant females are arriving, and the birthing has begun. The season begins slowly at the end of December, and by February as many as 4,000 pups may have been born. Now the beaches are filling up with pregnant females and mothers with pups. One by one, the females come out of the sea, sliding up onto the beach with the help of a surge—probably the same beach where they became pregnant the year before. After a long migration, eating all the way, they have built up their bodies so they can withstand a couple of months of fasting, childbirth and nursing. The pup is usually born within five days of the mother’s arrival.
Those visitors who are fortunate enough to view a birth will see the baby emerge, with the gulls standing by to clean up the afterbirth. The mother will vocalize, bonding her voice with that of her pup, so they can find each other amidst the increasing population on the beach.
The mother nurses her pup for about a month, and the pup, which weighs about 60 pounds when it is born, can gain as much as 10 pounds a day on the rich milk. The mother, not eating during birthing and nursing, can lose almost twice as much weight as the pup gains. As the nursing period ends, she goes into estrus and is ready to mate. That’s what the alpha males have been waiting for.
By mid January the mating season has begun and the males take center stage. Adult male elephant seals are awesome creatures, behemoths from visions of prehistoric eras. By human standards, they are ugly, with their huge, blubbery bodies, their rough, crusty necks and of course, those huge, dangling noses. They lie on the beach like enormous slugs, only to become mobile to chase another male or to pursue a female. Ugliness becomes power when it’s time to challenge another male. That calloused neck becomes a protective shield and as it stretches skyward, height makes might. There may be a question as to who is the tallest, but when the great mouth opens and the resonating sound begins, the guy with the deepest voice can send competitors packing. The booming sound is unlike any other, although some say it sounds like someone banging on a pipe or revving up a motor. The hollow holler builds and falls. Often, that’s all it takes to prove who’s boss. Other males will turn and slink into the sea or hang their heads dejectedly on the sand. But often they choose to fight, banging their necks together and biting into each other’s tough chest shield, drawing blood.
There is always plenty of action on the beach as mothers and pups deal with each other and with the winter tides. The pups can’t swim, so storm surges toss them about and separate them from their mothers. There is an element of drama every day, between pups and mothers and harem masters and their challengers.
The weather may turn blustery and cold, but the daily saga on the beach is worth braving the winter weather.
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