Breeding season has started for the northern elephant seals, and the beach near San Simeon is filling up with females and their newborn pups, youngsters, and big males with their famous snouts. I made a point of visiting these amazing creatures during the holiday break. Though there was a lot of rain, there was still a lot of action on the beach and I was excited to get to view big males battling in the surf, and even withness the birth of a pup!
Around November, the elephant seals begin to arrive for the breeding season. First females arrive and give birth to new pups. Shortly after the females start arriving, then the males arrive -- usually the younger males first with the larger bulls following soon after.
As the beach fills up with these massive seals, pups are in danger of being crushed. Mothers have to be alert, and I watched many mothers shout or bite at clumbsy neighbors that rolled onto their pups tails or flippers. Pups also have to keep out of the way of the large males as they charge across the beach at one another while claiming turf.
Bulls stake their claim on a section of the beach and all the females in that area, forming their harem. While fighting among the younger males is more for practice than anything else (they don't stand a chance against the mature males), the fights between large males can be intense and blood is drawn quickly.
The purpose of the male's elongated nose is two fold. The most noticeable use is that of roaring...loudly! Wikipedia states it succinctly: "The bull's proboscis is used in producing extraordinarily loud roaring noises, especially during the mating season. More importantly, however, the nose acts as a sort of rebreather, filled with cavities designed to reabsorb moisture from the animals' exhalations. This is important during the mating season when the seals do not leave the beach to feed, so must conserve body moisture as they have no incoming source of water."
Giving birth is a relatively quick ordeal. you can tell when a female is in labor because a gull or two will be waiting nearby. They dine on the afterbirth and so stick close to females giving birth. This female seemed particularly agitated and with the gull near, I kept an eye on her. Sure enough, in a short amount of time I saw the flippers of the pup start to emerge.
In only a matter of about 15 minutes or so, she had birthed her pup.
Gulls clean up the afterbirth in a feeding frenzy, much to the mother's annoyance as she didn't want them anywhere near her newborn. However, their role is vital in keeping the beach clean.
Mother and infant got to know each other during its first few minutes on the outside. She was immediately protective of it, which is good considering a young male came around just minutes after she had given birth with what seemed like amorous intentions. She stayed between him and her pup.
Fending off the younger males can be troublesome. This is one of the benefits of being on the beach with a large strong male -- he can keep these aggrivating youngsters at bay.
More images of the elephant seals of San Simeon can be found in this Flickr set.