Natural majesty

Text & Images by Jeff Bouton

Leica V-Lux (typ 114) point & shoot camera, Slo-mo video – iPhone through Leica APO Televid spotting scope

It doesn’t seem to matter what your passion is, different geographic areas always offer new, exciting discoveries & experiences. If you’re a foodie there are amazing new restaurants to experience, and the history buff can always find amazing historic factoids in each new town. As certainly, every region we visit offers unique, localized natural phenomenon. A different ecosystem or biome to explore, complete with interesting creatures that we just can’t see at home. So when we visited the Morro Bay Winter Birding Festival we of course appreciated the rocky coast specialty birds but the region also offered something that is very hard to see anywhere else.

entering the new dawn

With dawn’s first light streaming through light sea fog, the beach seemed primordial with enormous titans lumbering across the sands.

In the winter months, beaches just north of Morro Bay play host to an amazing natural spectacle when thousands of enormous Northern Elephant Seals haul out to court, mate, and raise their pups in massive colonies. This rare event only occurs in 7 main areas along California’s coast and most of these are on offshore islands. So for any non-local, this is a rarely-seen, amazing spectacle to behold.

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Elephant Seals are, of course named for the unique trunk-like proboscis that the males develop as they mature. Enormous bulls over 14 feet (4 m) in length and weighing in excess of 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) arrive in December and compete in bloody contests to earn the title of “beach master” allowing them to breed with a harem of females. The resultant scarring from the short tusk jabs & slashes can be amazingly evident on the necks and proboscis of these behemoths!

2 large bulls battle in the surf

2 large bulls battle in the surf

By mid-January the rookeries were in full swing and we were able to witness everything from roaring trumpeting bulls, to battling titans, copulations, and feeding and care of small pups.

Elephant Seals

The massive bulls would bellow to assert their dominance and position, their large proboscis resonating a roaring call. Usually, subsequent territorial squabbles were anticlimactic affairs with massive bulls bounding along in rippling pursuit for a mere 20 feet or so before breaking off and laying down exhausted. Usually the mere threat of battle was enough to chase off unworthy rivals.

However, equally matched bulls would not back down without an actual physical conflict. They would slam their heavy upper bodies into one another thrusting and slashing their short lower tusks into each others’ necks and breasts until one would finally retreat.

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At times in the close quarters of the rookery, even the females could get a bit temperamental, opening their mouths and howling. Occasionally even drawing blood with their own short lower tusks.

Love-making, as with everything with these monstrous beasts, was not a prolonged affair. The large bulls would sidle up to a female in estrous, toss his pectoral fin over her and making short work of the job.

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Amazingly adept in water, these animals are built for very deep water dives at night for squid, staying under for unimaginable lengths of time. They were woefully, ill-equipped for life on land though and they tired quickly with minimal effort here.

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The seals would flip wet sand onto their backs with their pectoral fins to keep themselves cool so the rookery was a constant cacophony of trumpeting calls, and flying sand, punctuated by the cries of gulls or hungry pups.

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Sometimes the bulls would lounge in the surf line to stay cool and support their prodigious girth. Smaller males would not maintain a harem but would wait at the edges of the rookery waiting opportunistically for a chance to breed with a female when the dominant bull was distracted and far away.

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Females would arrive on the beach and immediately give birth to one pup which they would feed with nutrient rich milk for four weeks. After this they would go intro estrous and breed once again with the bulls.

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We saw one female with four pups pressed tightly against her with no other females around. While females might sometimes adopt abandoned pups sadly there is not enough of the nutrient rich milk to fully ween more than one pup, and in these instances all would perish. You’ll note here that the female has separated her one pup and turned her back on the other three. A harsh decision, but a necessary one to insure the survival of her own pup. If the others do not reunite with their mothers, they will not survive without human intervention.

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Our short time with the seals on the Sunday morning before returning to the vendor area was bittersweet. We left with with our camera batteries near empty and our memory cards full of fantastic images and video preserving the memories of the sights & sounds of this truly amazing natural phenomenon. Worth the trip for this alone, but doubly rewarding if you tie in the marvelous field trips and charming venue of the Morro Bay Winter Birding Festival. We heartily recommend adding this one to your list!

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Dominant bull asserts his dominance when two young bulls approach from the surf line!