Piedras Blancas and the Elephant Seals

On a map, Piedras Blancas looks like a typical stretch of coastline that you would admire from the car window on your way to Hearst Castle or Big Sur. However, during this time of year an otherwise unnoticed coastal scenic view becomes a huge tourist destination. The maritime fur trade in the 1700’s tremendously reduced the population of elephant seals, cutting their populations down to the hundreds off the coast of California. However, since earning their protected status in 1922, their bi-annual molting season has gone from populations in the low hundreds to upwards of 23,000 seals today. These staggering numbers make this six mile stretch of coastline a very lively and interesting place to spend your afternoon (www.elephantseal.org). In 1997, the Friends of the Elephant Seal volunteer organization was founded in order to educate the public on respectful observation of marine mammals and to foster stewardship duties on this stretch of coastline. Going to visit the Elephant Seal Rookery a couple weeks ago was a really enlightening experience and talking to one of the volunteers really taught me a lot about the seals that molt here in Piedras Blancas. The volunteer told us that since we had come to visit in November very few females would be spotted on the beach. This is because male elephant seals spend most of the first half of mating season fighting and competing for dominance before the main group of females arrive one by one throughout the first couple weeks of December. The males that “lose” the fight will cower back to the shoreline and will attempt to mate with female elephant seals who are returning to the water after they have mated with the alpha male. Since both male and female elephant seals fast while on land, these massive creatures will lose about thirty percent of their body fat before returning to the water. We also earned that elephant seals are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning that there are significant differences between the males and females, from physical characteristics to dietary preferences. Another random yet amazing fact was learning that elephant seals are thigmotropic, essentially meaning that they are usually found clumped together since each others body weight simulates the comforting ocean pressure that they are used to underwater. Overall, I really enjoyed learning about the history that Piedras Blancas has in relation to the elephant seal. This trip helped reaffirm my belief that every inch of coastline can make a difference to a living species so we should do everything we can to conserve what we have and restore what we have lost.

Elephant Seals

2 thoughts on “Piedras Blancas and the Elephant Seals

  1. Powell says:

    I am in Animal Behavior right now so this post is speaking to me on so many levels! I am familiar with the different attributes each sex show but the thing on them being thigmotropic is amazing! That blows my mind, especially since they do this behavior all on their own because it’s what feels right to them. Great post!

  2. Vansloten says:

    That must have been an incredible sight. I am always in awe whenever I get to see any marine mammal in a natural habitat. It is such a rare sight that I appreciate every opportunity I am given to observe these amazing animals. I would love to go to that location and learn more about those elephant seals through that same non profit.

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