Northern Elephant Seals
by Lila Jones, Intern
December marks the beginning of the northern elephant seal breeding season on the Pacific Coast. Once hunted almost to extinction for the oil made from their blubber, these animals are making an amazing comeback. There are now about 160,000 northern elephant seals.
Northern elephant seals spend most of their time at sea, diving about 300 to 1000 feet to catch fish. They feed on about 30 different types of fish. They are preyed on by killer whales and sharks. They live in the waters along the Pacific Coast from Baja California to Alaska, but come ashore to breed. Four of the seven main breeding areas are off the coast of California. Large colonies can be observed at Año Nuevo State Reserve, Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, Morro Bay State Park and the Farallon Islands.
The male elephant seals come to shore first. They are about fourteen to sixteen feet long and weigh about 5000 pounds. They have a very prominent elephant trunk like nose, which is where they got their name. The males fight bloody battles to claim territory. The successful males will breed with many females. Some males never breed. Males fast during the three months they are on shore.
In late December the pregnant female elephant seals will arrive and give birth. The females will fast for the five weeks they are on shore. Each female will nurse her pup for about one month. The females are about ten to twelve feet long and weigh much less than the males. 24 days after giving birth the females form harems of 30 to 100 and begin mating. After mating, the females desert their pups and go back to sea. By the middle of March all you will see on the beaches is the weaners, which have already grown from about 75 pounds to 250-350 pounds. They teach themselves to swim and by the end of April they head out to sea too.
The elephant seals can also be seen on shore during the summer months when they come back to molt. Año Nuevo State Reserve offers guided walks for the public to view the northern elephant seals, while still protecting them. This is a very popular attraction, so buy your tickets early if you plan to go. They also have a “Sealcam” so that you can view the seals any time they are there. Check it out at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25732.
California State Parks: www.parks.ca.gov
National Geographic: www.animals.nationalgeographic.com