Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Whoopee in the Sand

One female elephand seal, three harbor seals, and ten sea lions.

We arrived at the overlook to Shell Island in time for a shrimp cocktail lunch. Tide is well on its way out. Lots of beach exposed. Clumped in a tight pancake are about 75 California sea lions, 100 harbor seals and a handful of elephant seals. After a brief look we settled in to eat lunch. We’re hoping to see migrating whales.

Whoa! What is that? Just away from the mass of fellow marine mammals two pups are trying to suckle on one elephant seal. Two? Are they both hers? Amongst the thirty or so pups we’ve seen over the years we’ve never seen any sign of a multiple birth. These two are the same size, black, and still too big for their skin. Baby elephant seals are about 75 pounds when born, and seem way too small for their skin. By the time they are abandoned a month later they are 250 pound butterballs. These two are very young. A gull keeps trying to cozy up to them, and gets chased off. The gull is probably looking for scraps of afterbirth.

I’m trying, but I’m too cold to draw. At least I got three little sketches done before my hands went stiff. Its above freezing, but the wind chill is putting me into the deep freeze and beyond. So much is happening. Where to begin?

The pups aren’t having much luck. Mama is on her belly. We look carefully to see if another female might belong to one of these babies. Of the five females, two appear big enough to be mature adults.

The California sea lions are pretty laid back – some scratching, some barking, lots of sleeping. Only males come this far north. The harbor seals are enjoying a good long rest on the sand. Their dappled silver fur blends well with bits of shell and sand. At high tide there is no room for them. Sometimes there isn’t even room for the larger animals.

The elephant seals mostly sleep too. The Mama with the pups is the most active. She shoos the gull a couple of times and obligingly rolls on her side so the pups can nurse. Both pups eagerly search for a teat. They both look strong. A high percentage of elephant seal pups born here drown during their first week of life. The combination of a high tide and a rough surf sends water crashing over the entire beach area. I can only hope these two will be strong enough to cope if that time comes. Until about fifteen years ago elephant seals didn’t even try to breed this far north. I still remember my excitement when I first spotted one. Hundred of sea lions were packed on the beach. I was searching through the mass of living meat with my spotting scope when I realized one was way too large -- an elephant seal! They are so big that I have found three smallish sea lions sleeping on the back of one elephant seal. The elephant seals and sea lions like to munch together for warmth on the wintery beach. Today we don’t see those huge numbers, but a shift in currents could bring them in. This is one of their favorite resting spots. Today, at mid tide, there is plenty of beach for all.

Big interruption! The other large female elephant seal comes lumbering along, with the beachmaster hot on her heels. He is a big fella. Big floppy snout bounces along as he ambulates on his belly, hot on her heels … or rather ‘hot on her tail flippers.’ Just imagine that you are a mere 1400 pounds and you are being chased by a whopping 4500 pound lover! The beachmaster lunges forward and nails the female down with a fore flipper. She wiggles and hollers and flips sand in his face, but to no avail. He hangs on. In the struggle he flops himself on top of her and over to her other side.

Its hard to see if he actually accomplishes his goal. Sea lions are curious and get in the way of our line of sight. Lots of sand flying…

… then a rest,

… and then round two. After a very sandy ten minutes, she finally breaks free and heads into the center of the sea lions. The beachmaster is content to settle down for a nap and recharge his batteries.

As for the whales, we didn’t see any today. My husband and I remembered to scan the horizon a few times, but not often enough. Our attention was captivated by the beach action.

Note: Elephant seals have a fascinating life history. They spend about 80 % of the year at sea and 80% of that time underwater. They can dive to 5000 feet. They come ashore for both birthing and breeding during the winter. After only a month the female abandons her pup on the beach and returns to sea. Her pup, now called a ‘weaner,’ spends another two months on the beach and playing in the water before maturing enough to head out to sea. His fat reserves carry him through this stage in his life. Once a year, during the spring or summer, the elephant seals return to shore for about a month to undergo a ‘catastrophic molt.’ They laze in the sun while their old coat peels off like a monster sunburn.

After I got home I tried to solve the mystery of multiple pups. According to “The Pinnipeds” by Marianne Riedman northern elephant seals very rarely have more than one pup and when they do, usually only one survives. But elephant seals appear to be rather relaxed about adopting other pups. There is even a term for pups that routinely suck from two mothers, “double-mother sucklers.” These pups can turn into super-sized weaners.

Perhaps one of the pups we saw today actually belongs to the female who was being actively courted by the beachmaster … and in the interim the pup was helping himself to a meal elsewhere.

I drew the simple line drawings on location. The colored drawing are drawn from our photos.


  1. What a facinating day out. I would have been mesmerized by all that flesh on the beach too. Love the sketches.

  2. Wow, what a great day you had! It's all so interesting.

  3. What a great story and pictures! Thank you for an informative post!

  4. Elva, thank you for the wonderful account of elephant seals in your area and the lovely artwork and photos. I am one of the many volunteer seal-loving docents at Año Nuevo State Park (south of San Francisco) where breeding is in full swing, both on an offshore island and on the mainland. Park visitors get to view the elephant seal breeding action while on docent-led tours (to ensure that people don't get too close). About two thousand pups are born within the park each year!! If you ever see a plastic tag on a hind flipper (between the "toes"), please let me know by email -- -- or email the park. The tags are put on several animals each year by research scientists. The tags are just about an inch long, so they are hard to see. They come in various colors depending on where the seal was tagged. The ones from our park are green. We love to know everything we can about the seals, including where they might be expanding their breeding range. Very best wishes! Lorrie Klosterman.