We’re taking a couple days vacation in central California, staying in Cambria and exploring the wild places. Every year a colony of elephant seals returns to a beach just north of San Simeon where they give birth, fight, nurse their young, fight, mate, fight, wean their young, fight again and then return to the sea for another season.
There’s a very nice boardwalk set up for watching all this unfold. However, as a photographer, it gets old shooting from the same angle, so I was happy to learn that some 13 miles of coastline previously owned by the Heart Corporation was now state property. Just a few miles south is a section of beach beloved by kite surfers, which, in elephant seal season, becomes known as “losers beach” because this is where males go when they learn they lack the right stuff to be an alpha male.
Access to this beach is fenced off, but it’s not illegal to go there. Nonetheless, the state assigns someone from the park service to convince you otherwise. This morning I was warned not to mess with the elephant seals (good advice) and that if I did, they’d sic a ranger on me. I was also told that if I got bitten by an elephant seal, the state of California would not be responsible. “What if I skin my knee?” I asked, “Will the governor come put a bandaid on my boo boo?” Actually, I didn’t think of that retort until much later.
So there I was on a gorgeous beach, shooting tidepools and other natural wonders, when a hefty male approached from the sea. They don’t move fast, but they can weigh 5,000 pounds. Nothing to trifle with. I was shooting with a telephoto, so I wasn’t that close. But I was watching that big fella through the long lens, so it seemed close. I got out of the way. Reviewing the images on my computer, I noticed his hot, steaming breath.
I shot some video. If it comes out, I’ll put up some clips of the babies nursing and calling their moms — it’s sweet stuff. The pups weigh 80 pounds at birth and gain 10 pounds a day for the next four months until they’re weaned. Mother’s milk in this case is as thick as mayonnaise and impossible for the babies to suckle out, so the mother actually pumps it out.
Okay class, our nature lesson for the day is over. Go watch some football.
More on the elephant seals here.