From late December to mid-March, Northern Elephant Seal haul themselves onto beaches along the Pacific coast to breed and give birth. Making this an excellent time to travel to several California locations (Santa Barbara, the Big Sur, Año Nuevo, and Point Reyes) to watch the bulls battle, the cows give birth, and the weaners triple their weight in just a month on their mothers’ rich milk.
A magnificent species, Elephant Seal spend much of their time in the ocean hunting for food at depths as unfathomable as 5,000 feet (that’s nearly twice as deep as the Burj Khalifa is tall), remaining submerged for up to 90 minutes at a time, surfacing to breathe for as little as 3 minutes between dives, and traveling up to 21,000 miles a year between the Pacific and Alaskan coasts.
Pretty astounding, don’t you think?
Though the Elephant Seal has called North America home for more than 5 million years, the species (Mirounga angustirostris) barely escaped the 19th century, after being hunted and butchered for its blubber.
Ironically, the oil industry inadvertently saved the elephant seal from extinction by the oil industry. That’s right: at the end of the 19th century, the crude oil industry—with its new product, kerosene—supplanted the whale oil industry and its signature product, blubber (the source of whale oil) as the preferred (and less expensive) fuel for oil lamps. However, by the time they were saved from extirpation, fewer than 100 Elephant Seal graced the planet.
Thanks to the safeguards of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the hardiness of the species, as many as 160,000 Northern Elephant Seal (the estimated size of the population prior to the 18th century) now inhabit their ancestral territory from Mexico to Alaska. Climate change—specifically, the increase in the water temperature along the Pacific coast—may threaten Elephant Seal once again: Seal pup numbers decline in years of a strong La Niña, and such conditions may become more prevalent as the climate changes. But hopefully they can overcome this threat to their existence, as well.
In the photo above, a fairly young bull clutches a female, easily pinning her to the sand, but the shortness of his proboscis and his absence of scars suggest that he is not yet seal enough to convince her of his suitability as a suitor. It’s a scenario one sees often on the beach at Piedras Blancas, where I created this photo. Over and over, eager younger bulls top and trap one of the many females that cover the beach. Only to be run off by a more experienced and larger bull in his prime. And when a dominant bull comes barreling across the sand, young bulls quickly take notice and head for the surf. And safety.
To read more about the Northern Elephant Seal, consult any of the following sites: the California State Parks, Friends of the Elephant Seal, the Marine Mammal Center, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, National Geographic, the National Wildlife Federation, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Wikipedia. You can also see more photos of Elephant Seal in our Marine Mammals gallery. We hope you enjoy them if you visit.