Directly alongside Highway 1 it is possible to witness one of nature’s most extraordinary spectacles. Behold! A beach full of snorting, sand-tossing, sun-bathing, breeding, molting, fighting, enormous Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris). Practically in our backyards in Piedras Blancas, we are fortunate enough to observe these magnificent marine mammals from only feet away. For eight months out of the year, these pinnipeds spend their lives out in the open ocean, only to come ashore after swimming nearly 12,000 miles to mate in late November, give birth, and raise their pups.
On the beaches, massive males fight for dominance, often leaving each other bloody and tattered. The seals form harems, with a male surrounded by several females and their offspring. The alpha male spends a good deal of his time keeping betas away from his ladies, and it is quite a scene to see a several ton male move with surprising speed across the sand to ward off competitors. When feeding, the adults can reach depths of 5,000 feet and spend from 20 minutes to an hour under water. Females search primarily for squid while males are thought to pursue a different diet of sharks, rays, and bottom-dwelling fish. In their quest for dinner, males travel along the continent to the Gulf of Alaska and females head out towards the open sea before returning to their rookery on the Central Coast. Northern Elephant Seals can live up to 14 years in the wild, making the migration multiple times once reaching maturity.
During the 1880’s Northern Elephant Seals were hunted almost to extinction by shore whalers for their blubber and oil. Only between 20-100 of them remained off of Baja California before being protected by the Mexican government, and later the United States. Today, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 keeps them secure and on the road to restoring their numbers. Today, their populations have grown to 170,000 and continue to increase. Organizations such as Friends of the Elephant Seal have taken it upon themselves to educate the public about the remarkable animals, and offer docent lectures, live web cams, and visitor center.
Get in touch with nature and view these magnificent marine mammals before they take off for another year!