Elephant Seals: Monsters on the Beach

By Dave Hanks

As you come south on highway 1 along the ocean just north of San Simeon, California you can hear considerable noise coming from the beach. A large parking lot allows a stop to witness an impressive show. The beach is literally covered with NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEALS. It is a species that frequents northern Pacific coasts. Another species, the Southern species is found below the equator. There are as many as 15,000 that make their land base in this general area.

This huge sea mammal spends 8 to 10 months a year at sea. They can dive up to 5000 feet and stay under an extraordinary 2 hours. They migrate thousands of miles twice a year to their land base to breed and to molt. The growth of new skin (molting) requires them to be on land for about a month. New skin growth involves blood flow outside of their blubber. If sea water is at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, then the seal would be susceptible to the cold. This beaching is called a “haul-out”. There are no females around and so there is no fighting. The males “haul-out” in August, and females in May or June - both are there in January. May is the best month to see a maximum number of seals at the San Simeon site, as there are usually about 4000 individuals on the beach. During this quiet month of fasting, there is a lot of sleeping. Apnea (cessation of breathing) is common during this time and can last from a few minutes to a half hour.

Early winter is the birthing and mating month. Females need some space around them and their pups, and they defend it vigorously. Pups are crying now and the bulls are continually fighting to protect their harems from sneaker males, which hang out along the periphery, watching for a chance to rush in to try to mate. It is believed that only about one percent of the males get to breed during their life. No wonder there is constant fighting! Elephant Seals live, on the average, about 23 years, reaching maturity at 4 to 5 years.

I can attest that these immense bulls are to be taken seriously – having been chased by one on the Oregon coast a few years back.

(A battle-scarred old warrior)