Sunday, February 6, 2011

Northern Elephant Seals prepare for Valentine's Day

A bull seal showing the wounds from a recent fight
A young male comes ashore to test the Alpha bull
No trip down the coast would be complete without a stop to check in on the Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris).  In early December the large males begin to arrive on the beaches, establishing their territory and sizing up the competition.  The battles are fierce and bloody but rarely deadly and to the victor go the spoils.  The 'Alpha' bull gets the privilege of mating with all of the females of his harem which can consist of anywhere from 30 to 100 females.
The intruder is chased off by the Alpha
Females arrive on the beaches mid to late December and give birth to the next generation.  These pups are jet black earning them the nickname "black coats".  Approximately 75 pounds at birth, the pups nurse on fat-rich milk for 25-28 days.  Incredibly they can reach between 250-350 pounds in this short time period!  Once they are weaned they lose their black coat, molting into a silver gray.

Females bear one pup but orphaned pups take advantage where ever they can
After weaning her pup, Mom mates with the alpha bull (Valentine's Day usually falls at the height of the mating season - fancy that!) and then abandons the pups to learn to fend for themselves.  They spend the next few weeks climbing through sand dunes, chewing on everything they find, playing in tide pools and eventually taking to the sea as they learn what it means to be a seal. 
Black coat preparing to nurse
Mother and black coat pup bask in the morning sun

Where to view North Elephant Seals:
Año Nuevo State Park: Reservations required

Piedras Blancas, San Simeon
Walkways open to the public year round and admission free

The Marine Mammal Center
Marin Headlands near Sausalito
Rescue and rehabilitation
Open to the public 10am - 5pm daily
Free admission

A bull issuing his trade-mark battle-call


Pat Ulrich said...

Really wonderful post! I really like the shot of the three pups at one mother. Being able to see these guys this time of year is one of the coolest parts about living in northern CA.

Rebecca Jackrel said...

Thanks Pat! High praise after drooling over your Año Nuevo shots!!! Wish I had had more than half an hour to spend with these guys... Hate that I'm always passing through on the way to LA. So much personality deserves extra time!