Monday, January 23, 2006

love is in the air...

elephant seals trip
Originally uploaded by S'mee.

Last weekend we were invited to go with #1 and his wife for a short over-nighter in their "new" motor home. They had never been up to Piedras Blancas to see the elephant seals, so it sounded like a terrific trip.

Along the beach, safely behind a fence, hundreds of tourists use binoculars, cameras and bare eyes to observe the mating rituals of these enormous beasts. Adult males, weighing in at 4-5,000 pounds, are quite impressive. At first site one is taken back by the car sized mammals laying on the beach. These particular seals are relatively new to the area, having come ashore first in 1990 to make Piedras Blancas their beach front love nest. This is highly unusual as they prefer remote island at sea. Lucky for us, they now like the sunny, if not windy and cold beaches of the Central California Coast. Literally thousands come ashore. November brings the first of the females, teenagers follow in December and the Male/bulls show up in January ready for lovin'.

elephant seals trip-
Originally uploaded by S'mee.

It is hard to imagine just how large they can be. The photo shop illustration (bad as it is) shows what it would be like for a 6 foot man to stand next to a posturing bull. These guys are BIG! Heck, the mommas are big. Even new babies are the size of small children.

When one drives along the highway they can hear the seals loudly communicating with each other. The bulls belch, bellow, chortle, bark and make - what a nearby teenager stated as - "a 4500 pound old man 'passing gas'"- to put it politely. And yes, that is a good description. Mommies bark, and the babies squeal -like monkeys. It's nuts.

elephant seals trip
Originally uploaded by S'mee.
When the bulls beach they are in the mood for love, and because they are so handsome they figure they can spread themselves around and gather a harem. This is fine, until another Mr. Right comes along, then you get trouble. When a new male approaches territory already claimed by a bull, a challenge is presented by throwing a head back, arching a back and bellowing loudly (to impress the ladies). The other bull is alerted and does a great 80's disco "worm", waddling quickly to face off with the challenger. Sometimes barking, belching and a few head tosses is all it takes to discourage a younger or less virile guy. But if Mr. Big Stuff comes along and thinks he can take over the harem- a fight is more than gesture and posturing, it gets down right nasty. Bulls have very large canine teeth that can rip through flesh easily, tearing the blubber right off the hide of a weaker opponent. Head buts, neck bites, and rolling result in torn flesh and blood loss. Eventually the weaker one will get the hint and leave the stronger fellow to the gals.

elephant seals trip
Originally uploaded by S'mee.

Once dominance is established, the big boys get to work impressing the ladies one at a time. Sometimes even all the muscles in the world are not enough to sway a new momma, or a gal with high standards. Here, our new mom has had enough. Although he is very aggressive, she is able to dissuade his affection by swatting sand, barking objectively, and making her way away from the advance. He is disappointed, but only for a short while as other beauties are within a short distance and all it takes with some of them is a nice profile. Some girls are easier than others! This photo shows the size differences in a fairly new pup, mom, and bull.

elephant seals trip
Originally uploaded by S'mee.

Elephant seals get the majority of attention on the beach, however there are other wildlife to see. The chipmunks have gotten so used to the photographers and gawkers that they almost pose in hopes of making it into someone's photo album. Sand pipers, gulls, cranes and hawks are all easily photographed if you have a camera ready. There are zebras and other exotic animals down the road on Hearst Castle property.

Piedras Blancas is on the Central Coast about 5 miles north of San Simeon. Just south of this particular beach is one of the "world's best wind surfing, kite surfing beaches" according to the signs. So, when you get your fill of aggressive blubber filled mammals you can drive south a minute and watch aggressive testosterone filled mammals one-up each other in the surf and wind.

Most of the action takes place around Valentine's Day (how appropriate, but true!). The more alpha males come ashore the less females are available, so the fighting reaches quite a peak. Thor and I make this trip several times a year and we always stop for at least a half an hour to take in the sight. There are usually some elephant seals on the beach year 'round, however, the action and activity is only in the January and February mating season. Other times they are just resting or feeding off shore, and there are no guarantees they will be there when you drive by.

The closest "big city" is Morro Bay, which ain't saying much. There is limited camping at San Simeon, and know that the small town is catering to the tourists who flock to Hearst $$$ for hotels, food, gas, etc. Other camp sites are about two hours either direction and the drive is easy and scenic. Pack a lunch and make it easy (read:cheap) on yourself.

Parking is available, although not paved. Warning: DO NOT park on the highway. There are police officers (even when you can't see them) who would like nothing more than having the tourists donate funds to the local economy via a parking fine. Take your time and drive through the lot provided, I promise you will find a space. The area for viewing is about a half mile(?) and easy to walk. You will want to walk the entire length to see all you can. Lots of the same thing, but a good fight or birth is worth the trip if your timing is right.

Bring a coat, gloves, and a hat as it is cold and windy here most of the year. Bring a camera with lots of film, and if you can afford it, one with a telephoto lens. A video camera is well worth it also. Binoculars will afford you spectacular close ups, but you are fairly close to the action and can see plenty without them. Be aware that if you bring little ones or the teenagers you will have to explain procreation, birth, the whole circle of life as it is happening right there in front of them and hard to avoid. There are, on occasion, dead babies that roll in and out of the surf, which is hard to witness too.

Docents are on site most of January and February to answer all sorts of questions; but there are also informational signs provided in English, Spanish, and other languages.

add to sk*rt


Lisa M. said...


Thank You S'mee!

s'mee said...

These guys crack me up, I am glad you enjoy them!

s'mee said...
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chronicler said...

I love this post! This is one of my favorite places in the whole world to go!
I am always amazed at their size!

David B. said...

This is a wonderful post. I would love to go there sometime (I don't know when that might be though.)

I'm sure my kids would really be amazed. As far a seeing life, its beginnings and endings, I think that would be a good thing for them. When I was growning up, I spend a lot of time on my grandfather's cattle ranch. There was no way that we could avoid seeing cows being bred, calves born, and deaths of both mamas and babies. I even got to help deliver a few calves when I was a teenager.

My kids haven't had that opportunity, so something like this would be very educational for them.

s'mee said...

Chronicler, I freaked the first time I saw them on the beach!

David, this is definately worth the trip if you are in the area. Thanks for all the nice words.