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The Elephant Seal

Updated: May 3, 2022

Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands host southern California's largest population of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angirostris). I can see the entire island of San Miguel from the top of China Camp, but it is still too far away to make out the tiny dots that line that island's expansive beaches. Instead, I gaze down upon Santa Rosa's own inhabitants; a crowded congregation of hundreds of lounging pinnipeds.

Hunted to near extinction in the late 1800's, the northern elephant seal has made a remarkable comeback in the Californias. Being the lazy, awkward, oblivious kind that they are on land, they are exceptionally easy to hunt and were prized for their rich blubber. In fact, Dave and I had to wait for a big bull to move out of our way so we could cross the road at Johnson's Lee on the south side of the island. It's as if they don't notice an intruder until the very last second and even then it is still a question of whether or not they will move at all.

Protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, it is illegal for humans to harvest elephant seals. As a result, numbers have increased from a single remnant population on Guadalupe Island off of Baja California to several hundreds of populations along the northern Pacific coast.

The elephant seals couldn't have cared less about our need to cross the creek at Johnson's Lee on the south side of Santa Rosa Island

Males come ashore in late November and early December to establish territories that will allow them to secure a harem. Males may be seen violently sparring with one another, landing violent blows with their sharp canines, staining the water red with flowing blood. Winning the rights to a harem is not taken lightly and sometimes males will even fight to the death. Within each harem, one male will mate with hundreds of females. Females don't arrive until late December and early January and usually give birth to one to two pups between mid and late January. A female elephant seal will allow her young to suckle for the first few weeks. This milk is the fattiest and richest among all mammals. Four to five days after the pups are born, the females will mate with the dominant male and soon thereafter head back out to sea.

Probably the most fascinating facts about the elephant seal have to do with its incredible agility in the water. Elephant seals are among the world's deepest diving mammals, averaging one thousand to two thousand foot dives and holding their breath for up to twenty minutes. Individuals have been documented diving up to 5,000 feet (over two miles) for up to an hour! These animals spend very little time at the surface, pausing only two to three minutes before heading down for their next dive. Because they spend so much time in cold ocean water, their blood is shunted to their core in order to provide warmth to their vital organs. Therefore, when they come ashore to breed, they shed their entire layer of outer skin which has died from a lack of blood flow. This skin is replaced by a brand new layer when the blood returns to the surface.

Females and pups molting their skin on a beach near San Simeon, California in early April

Females feed primarily on squid but males will also feed on small sharks, rays, and bottom-dwelling fish. Recently, NASA scientists have attached satellite transmitters to seals in order to record oceanic data such as temperature and density. Scientists say that this could be the frontier of providing an oceanic forecast for nautical adventurists.

So, it is now that I have the pleasure of observing this rookery of ugly, slug-like pinnipeds while watching for eagles near the shore. I can hear their rude bellowing from miles away; their protruding rostrum works wonders in amplifying their vocalizations. I couldn't be much happier. The wind is only blowing occasionally (unlike yesterday when there were constant 50 mph wind gusts) and the sun is shining brightly. Yesterday I was on the north side of the island, exposed to the wind whipping around Point Conception. Today I am enjoying the southern warmth and I now know why the seals have chosen to sun bathe on this particular side of the island.

Elephant seals sunbathing on the southern side of Santa Rosa Island, California

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