On the last leg of the road trip, I took the long way home, the one with the prettiest of views…
We decided to drive up the coast of California and it was a stunningly beautiful coastal day; a mix of just the right amount of fog to punctuate the otherwise hardly detectable difference between the ocean blue and blue skies. For awhile, we cruised behind a zippy red sports car and we tried to keep up, imagining that we were them! But, before too long, we lost them, as we made the first of many stops along the way to take in the view. What we found at this stop was the perfect beginning to the ending of a wonderful vacation.
It truly ‘sealed’ the deal for us.
Along California’s central coast is a population of Elephant Seals. Turns out, we passed by during the quiet time of the year; hundreds of the seals were lounging about on the beach, but come January through May? The ‘rookery’ as it is called, will be home to thousands of these guys and gals.
Elephant Seals spend eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1000 to 5000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, surfacing for maybe 3-5 minutes before plunging to the depths again. They migrate thousands of miles, twice a year, to their land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest. The rookery we saw is along Highway 1, seven miles north of San Simeon and is home to about 17,000 animals.
When you think of hanging out on the beach, wouldn’t you think of snacks, roasting hot dogs, enjoying a beer? Right? Well, not the 5,000 lb elephant seals. They go on a diet while on land, and when on the beach, they do not eat.
The adult animals come on to the beach in the winter for the birthing and breeding season with adult males arriving in late November or early December when they contest for a dominant position on the beach. Winners in that contest are referred to as alpha males or beach masters. Funny, some things are so similar across different species…
Another interesting similarity? The peak of mating is around Valentine’s Day. And then, the females leave.
The Elephant seals form harems, in which the dominant, or alpha, male is surrounded by a group of females. Mother Nature’s Bachelor show? On the periphery of the harem, the beta bulls wait in hopes of an opportunity to mate. They assist the alpha bull in keeping away the less dominant males. Fights between males can be bloody affairs in which the combatants rear up and slam their bodies against each other, slashing with their large canine teeth. However, not all confrontations end in battle. Rearing up on their hindquarters, throwing back their heads, showing off the size of their noses and bellowing threats is enough to intimidate most challengers.
The rookery is a very noisy place during the breeding season as males bellow threat vocalizations, pups squawk to be fed, and females squabble with each other over prime location and pups. Kind of just like families, right? Gargles, grunts, snorts, belches, bleats, whimpers, squeaks, squeals, and the male trumpeting combine to create the elephant seal symphony of sound.
What is an elephant seal? A deep-sea diver, a long distance traveler, an animal that fasts for long periods of time, elephant seals are extraordinary. They come together on land to give birth, mate, and molt but at sea they are solitary. Tremendous demands are placed on their bodies.
Yep, sealed the deal for us!