Friday, February 12, 2010

Lovelorn Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas

Valentine's Day isn't just a human celebration. It also coincides with the peak mating and birthing season for northern elephant seals on the Pacific coast. Right now, our local elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas, just north of Hearst Castle, is reaching the peak of its winter activity. Every year, thousands of these gigantic, smelly and noisy marine mammals migrate down from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to spend their winters on the beach in balmier southern climes.

Large male bulls with their harems of pregnant and nursing females and fatty pups are crowding the beaches of the Central Coast right now as I write this post. What makes it worth driving all the way down here, south of Big Sur, to see these ginormous wild animals? Unlike at Año Nuevo State Park, you don't need to pay an admission fee or make reservations weeks in advance to join a guided tour just to observe the seals on our beaches. The prime boardwalk viewing point is 4.8 miles north of Hearst Castle, where blue-jacketed docents are on hand to answer all your questions. Because the seals can move faster on the sand than humans can, always keep a safe distance back while viewing the colony.

What happens to those unvictorious male seals who are too young or small to win any female companionship after battling for mates? They gather together on out-of-the-way bachelor beaches, where they're unlikely to raise the ire of any granddaddy bulls. Sometimes those lovelorn young males apparently get a little bored, and they occasionally try to cross Highway 1 to go join the Hearst Ranch cows grazing on the other side. For these lonely seals, it seems that having some cows placidly chewing their cud for company is better than having no one at all on Valentine's Day. Better luck next year, boys!

Photo: Piedras Blancas northern elephant seal colony (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

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