Elephant Seals at Ano Nuevo

First weekend of March, 2002


The real action occurs in December through February, with births, nursing, and then mating all over the place. By March, most of the mating is over; the males take to the water and the females finish nursing their pups (one baby to each mom) and then head out as well. The beach is mostly strewn with weaned babies (known as 'wieners'), crying for their now-departed moms. Over the next several weeks, they will start attempting to swim.

There are still a few adults around, however-- mostly very lazy or younger males who are loitering in the hopes of maybe finding a female still around who hasn't been mated with a jillion times already. The adults don't eat during the entire birth/fighting/mating period so by March they've lost almost two thirds of the body mass they arrived with, but they're still quite large and the guided tour generally ends up coming quite close to both loitering males...



...and pockets of wieners that have moved further inland. The tours are guided to both avoid exposure to danger from male aggression, and to protect the wieners, which are very fragile animals. They're under a lot of stress, what with only being a couple of months old and their moms have already left them forever and they don't know how to swim yet and males tend to step on them and more than half of them are going to be eaten by sharks and orcas in the next two years...


Once you hit the beach, it's wieners as far as the eye can see, just lying around wondering what they're supposed to do next, and occasionally (if they can get up the strength for it) crying for their mothers, who left days earlier. There are still a few nursing females around in March (as seen on the right, mom on her side and baby looking for lunch) but not many.

 


There's also a little bit of residual male aggression going around, but not much. The real successful males have been and gone; these ones didn't manage to get in and get some action during the prime part of the season, so they're lording it over the few remaining females, and making noise at each other. Not much actual fighting going on anymore, though. On the left, the male on the left is rearing up to successfully scare off the male on the right (the darker-looking seal). On the right, a male comes sloshing out of the water looking for a little afternoon lovin'. And you know what they say about the size of an aquatic mammal's nose...


Despite the fact that she's almost certainly already been impregnated by one of the dozens of more experienced males who got to her earlier in the season, homeboy decides to climb on one of the few remaining females for another go-around. The moment he starts approaching her, she honks in protest, but he doesn't particularly care. The little black lump behind them is her pup, the only reason she's still on the beach at all. This time, it barely got out of the way in time as the male lurched his way over to mama; one of the major causes of baby seal death on the beach is being crushed by males as they move to fight or mate. Mama is not having a real good time; don't let the second picture fool you into thinking she's smiling. She protested noisily the whole time. So did the baby.


The bond between mother and pup is very tenuous; if separated by as little as twenty feet, they might lose track of each other and never connect back up, resulting in the pup starving to death before weaning age (another big cause of infant death). In the picture on the left, looking up at the higher observation point, you can see a couple of dead babies in the middle distance (where the seagulls are). The other seals seem completely unaware, and apparently gulls and coyotes make quick work of those who do die. In a typical season, something like 6-12% of the babies born here don't live long enough to make it out to sea. Once they're out there, however, the mortality rate is even higher. (The picture on the right was taken from the higher observation point, looking down at the lower beach where the previous pictures were all taken.)