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Happy Valentine’s Day

At both Piedras Blancas (just north of San Simeon, CA) and Año Nuevo (in Pescadero, CA) we’ve heard docents and rangers tell visitors that the days just before and after Valentine’s Day offer the best opportunities to witness the birth of a Northern Elephant Seal pup. We’re sure they’re right. But after visiting the colonies at one or the other location since 2003, we’ve yet to witness a birth. We’ve actually been at Piedras Blancas on two occasions when a birth occurred but weren’t close enough to see either one. Nevertheless, we can confidently say that when they occur, births happen very quickly and without warning.

At least to photographers. The gulls seem to know exactly when a birth is occurring and raise a raucous clamor, excitedly calling as they swarm around the newborn seal, eager for a taste of the afterbirth. I found the just-born pup, below (the umbilicus still draped around its body), after hearing the cacophony of mobbing gulls and rushing to the spot. After a few minutes, only one hopeful gull remained.

A newly born Northern Elephant Seal pup gets an earful from it’s mother. Piedras Blancas, California.

Once all the uninvited avian guests depart, mother and pup get some much deserved rest. Then it’s on to the serious business of keeping the pup safe and healthy. Mothers noisily strive to keep other cows and pups at bay, sometimes aggressively confronting them. The biggest danger to the pups? Being trampled by the enormous adult bulls vying for supremacy in the colony. Though they don’t intentionally attack the pups, the largest adult bulls can weight up to 8,000 pounds (more than 100 times the weight of a pup at birth), and when they charge across the beach in hot pursuit of another male, they can seriously injure a young seal unable to get out of their way.

A well-fed Northern Elephant Seal pup explores at the water’s edge. Piedras Blancas, California.

Thanks to milk highly rich in fat, pups grow quickly, increasing their weight from 75 to approximately 300 pounds in four weeks of nursing. (The pup, above, offers an example of how large they can grow in a relatively short time.) And they need to fatten up quickly. Female seals fast for five weeks after arriving at the colony, and once they wean their young (approximately a month after giving birth), they leave the beach for the open seas of the Pacific Ocean, where they spend eight or more months of the year. The pups, now “weaners,” spend another 3 months on the beach before heading out to sea for the first time themselves. Those that survive their first year at sea will return to the beaches where they were born.

Like to see more photos of the mothers and pups? Then please visit our Northern Elephant Seal Valentine’s Day gallery. Enjoy.