It's that time of year again when colonies of elephant seals flock to one of several beaches along the California coast to mate, give birth, and cause a general ruckus. Sometimes called one of the ugliest animals on the planet because of adult males' floppy, trunk-like snouts, baby elephant seals are actually quite adorable, and this is prime time to catch them at their cutest, before they even learn how to swim.
Ground zero for elephant seal rookeries in California is the protected beach at Piedras Blancas near San Simeon, 90 miles south of Monterey, which incidentally President Obama just added to the California Coastal National Monument two weeks ago. If that seems like too far a trek, there's a live cam you can watch any time, and things are quite crowded there right now, as you can see from the screencap below, from today.
Among the action you'll see will be juvenile males facing off with each other for sport, pups squealing, mothers honking and screaming at each other to preserve their beach real estate, and 5000-pound adult male bulls competing for mating dominance. And the seals are all tightly packed together in part to protect the pups from getting washed out to sea in rough surf.
As docent Curtis Replogle explained in the video below from last January, from the San Luis Obispo Tribune, high surf can mean a high mortality rate for the pups, since it will take them a few weeks to grow and begin swimming, after the mothers mate and leave them. Also, mothers and pups can get separated in the crowd, and each mother only gives birth to one pup at a time, and can only nurse one at a time giving birth to a 75-pound baby that will quintuple in size in just a few weeks, during which time the mother will not eat.
Elephant seals are the largest seal species, and they spend 80 percent of their lives in the water, often descending to more than 5,000 feet below the ocean surface to feed on bottom-dwelling fish, according to the Marine Mammal Center.
Other spots where you can find rookeries the peak of the birthing season is right about now and started in mid-December include Point Reyes and Año Nuevo State Park , another protected beach north of Santa Cruz where elephant seals also return year after year. See a map here.
Juvenile male seals can also be seen on these beaches in what's called the "fall haul out," when one- to three-year-old males gather to bask in the sun from September to October.