Saturday, July 28, 2012

Northern Elephant Seals @ Piedras Blancas

An Adult Elephant Seal Bull, Piedras Blancas, CA
Point Piedras Blancas is one of the elephant seal rookeries that can be found in California coast. A rookery is a breeding site on sandy beaches protected from dangerous surf and predation. Elephant seals got their name from their size, the males can grow to 14 ft and 5000 lbs. The elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction by the 19th century,  being prized for their oil. There were only about 100 to 1000 Northern elephant seals left, and they found refuge in Mexican waters. The only surviving rookery that was left then was at the Guadalupe Island, Mexico. The rookery was granted protection by the Mexican government.  By early 20th century, elephant seals have been protected by both Mexico and United States laws. After US passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the numbers have recovered to over 100,000. Now, the population is growing at about 25% in California, new colonies are established, and are probably limited only by haul out space. However, the population can easily be reduced with weather conditions. In 1997- 98 El Nino, about 80% of the pups were lost to the weather.
Bulls on Shore @ Piedras Blancas Rookery
Because of being hunted previously, elephant seals lived in isolated areas away from humans, until recently. It was a surprised that in 1990, the elephant seals started colonizing the unspoiled beaches South of Point Piedras Blancas on the California Coast. What was surprising then, unlike the other early colonies in California which are in a more remote and isolated beaches, Piedras Blancas is right next to the Pacific Highway,  where tourists can easily pull over, take a walk and observe them.
Elephant Seal Rookery Right Next to Highway
notice the highway on the top right of the picture ) 
Whatever their reason to have chosen this site has somehow hinted their renewed trust on humans. Another surprise, even though elephant seals here probably get human visitors every day, but this rookery now hosts more breeding animals during the winter season than the early rookery at Ano Nuevo State Park. 
Molting Elephant Seal
This rookery has elephant seals year round for different reasons. During the summer, adult males are on shore to replace their old skin and hair, which is called molting. The females and juveniles molt from April to May, the young adult males molt from May to June and the adult males molt from June to July. Unlike most mammals, where we replace our old skin and hair year round, the pinnipeds replace their skins all at once. 
A Proud Male Elephant Seal Making Noise
The male's large proboscis ( an elongated appendage from its head) allow them to make extra-ordinary loud and roaring noise. They make such loud noise that it is hard not to notice them in the highway. They make even much louder noise during the mating season which is in winter.
Fighting Elephant Seals
In a rookery, elephant seals organize themselves into groups called harems. The bulls engage in fierce and violent battles to obtain dominance of the harem. The most dominant bull in the harem, called the alpha bull, chooses a spot near the center of the harem. It is the successful bull or the dominant bull that does most of the breeding. An alpha bull can protect up to 50 females plus pups from an intruding male. The females fight with each other too for that position at the center of the harem, closest to the alpha bull. Relatively few males are able to actually mate because of this hierarchy. Other males have to be opportunistic to mate, they wait until the alpha bull is busy mating, defending the harem or sleeping. They will try to sneak in the harem and mate with the females. Some males, would even try to stop a female going to the ocean to mate.
Crying Elephant Seals
Resting Right Next to Each Other
But despite being involved in violent fights for dominance, elephant seals are still very social animals, they prefer to be close to each other. When they rest, you see them right next to each other, eliminating free spaces as much as they could.
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  1. matthew said wow, a million of them! hahaha! read somewhere that they can dive for up to 5000 ft deepa nd stay under for two hours. these bulls are extraordinary...nice post, beth!

  2. I love these guys. They are so playful and cute. I even enjoy the "barking" sounds. Great photos of them. Thanks for sharing Betchai

  3. I remember coming here years ago. You have some awesome shots. I bet it was noisy.

  4. It must be as noisy as the frogs, or even at higher decibel?
    It is really spectacular.

  5. I love all your posts but anything especially with animals! Amazing as usual and my daughters and I loved seeing how cute they are! Thanks for sharing.

  6. That wonderful that you can gt so close to them and see them in their natural environment.

  7. I am always at a lost for words seeing your photos! Not only your post are stunning, it's also very educational..

  8. betchai so much seals! now i see the difference with regular seals and elephant seals...thanks for the nice detailed pics!

    the fighting seal you posted is almost the same as the one i told you except i described it as kissing =) be patient with me.... I'm quite lagged from posting =P

  9. 14 feet and 5000lb!! That is really elephantine! No wonder they called elephant Seals :)

    Very informative and thanks very much for the post!

  10. I like seeing so many of these seals, and you have given very good information to go along with them. I'm glad to have learned all of this.

  11. They look so sweet resting very near each other, just like one big close-knit family. :)

  12. Fascinating post! From a distance, they look like stones on the beach. Very interesting natural history info. I'm glad these beautiful creatures are protected by law.

  13. They might look sluggish on the land, but I saw them swim in the deep ocean, very very fast and agile. Great photos betchai!

  14. Leer el mundo blog, bastante bueno

  15. i like this post.thanks for share this cool post...

  16. These guys smell. But they are super cute and Miss T would hug them and kiss them anyways. smiles.