Story: David Bolling
Photos: Steven Krause & David Bolling
Let’s be perfectly honest. This is a story about voracious sex, binge eating, male supremacy, polygamy, child abandonment, and radical obesity. It makes Animal House look like a garden party. It’s not pretty.
So before you read any further, you may want to send the kids out of the room, pull the blinds and lock the doors. The scene that follows would be illegal, or at least medically discouraged, in many parts of America, but still it takes place every year, in plain view, on a public beach, with thousands of participants, right here in California, a little over two hours from Sonoma.
Worse yet, not only can you watch—there are guided tours. At Año Nuevo State Park, just up Highway 1 from Santa Cruz. Even the kids can go.
There are at least two ways of looking at this sordid spectacle. On the one hand, if you’re an old-school, chauvinistic man, maybe you’ll relate. That’s because the principal players in this outdoor orgy are bellowing, chest-beating, macho males who fight each other for control of large harems and then have a great deal of noisy sex.
On the other hand, if you’re a woman, the promiscuous behavior and the lack of gender equality will almost certainly offend you. Especially since these amorous males are about as subtle as a D9 Caterpillar tractor and almost as heavy. There’s no wine and roses at this party, and the three-to-one size differential between males and females makes romance painful if not actually dangerous.
Of course, we’re not talking about humans—no male human would behave this way, would he? We’re talking about elephant seals, the ne plus ultra of pinniped evolution, the biggest, fattest, marine mammals to ever take over a beach. Which leads us to the outrageously obese part of the story.
Now, a California sea lion is a hefty beast. Males can reach a thousand pounds. But that’s chump change. A Steller sea lion can weigh more than a ton. Impressive, but still small potatoes. A full-grown male walrus can top 3,000 pounds. That’s some serious blubber, but it’s nowhere near the northern elephant seal, the (almost) undisputed heavyweight champion of the non-whale, marine mammal world (only the southern elephant seal is bigger). Try 16 feet and 5,000 pounds. That’s a Chevy Suburban with seating for nine, air conditioning, four DVD screens and the upgraded, Alcantara upholstery.
Gender inequality usually begins with size, and elephant seals are an extreme example of sexual dimorphism, in which natural selection encourages males to bulk up and be manly, the better to defend harems, drive off competitors and enrich the gene pool. The females, therefore, are petite by comparison, running a relatively svelte 900 to 1,800 pounds. Their primary job, which they do as briefly and efficiently as possible, is to birth and briefly nurse their young.
The Double-Mother- Sucker-Super-Weaner
The pregnant females all deliver their young within a week of arrival at Año Nuevo, a feat of synchronized childbirth made possible by the fact the fertilized egg doesn’t implant to the mother’s uterus wall for up to four months, thus sparing the pups a sea birth they couldn’t survive. The newborn pups weigh about 75 pounds, but by the time they’re weaned a month later they will have reached 250 to 350 pounds. That extraordinary weight gain comes thanks to the extravagant richness of the mother’s milk, which is 55 percent fat and has the consistency of pudding. Occasionally a “weaner” will find a lactating cow who’s lost her pup and begin suckling again, putting on even more weight and becoming what some Año Nuevo rangers gingerly refer to as (don’t try to say this really fast) a “double-mother-sucker super-weaner.”
Unlike other pinnipeds (the sub-order of four-flippered, amphibious carnivores), elephant seal moms pull the plug at about 28 days and kiss the kids goodbye. Suddenly, and without warning, the weaners are on their own. They have to learn how to swim, eat, navigate and survive, by themselves. Anywhere else, somebody would call child protective services, but this is Año Nuevo, a state wildlife reserve where different rules apply.
The odds of weaners surviving their first year in the big wide ocean aren’t great; only about half will return for their first birthday. The learning curve is pretty steep and, since they travel solo, there’s no one around to give lessons. Stacking the odds against them is the predatory presence of great white sharks, which have added Año Nuevo to their banquet circuit. The weaners who make it will return twice each year to the beach of their birth to molt and, if they’re lucky, eventually mate. What takes place on that beach each winter is something beyond even your wildest imagination.
It has to be one of the ultimate party scenes in all of nature. Picture, if you can, up to 6,000 raucous, writhing, quarreling, fighting, bleeding, birthing, nursing and shamelessly mating mounds of barely ambulatory blubber. At the peak of the annual orgy in December and January, you can hear and smell them almost a mile away, and up close the noise and odor are overwhelming. The party stretches across a sizable swath of the 300-acre dune field that covers most of Año Nuevo Point, but party central is often a stretch of beach just east of the point, at the base of a high sloping dune. There the seals are sometimes arranged like cordwood, layered up against each other in a riot of motion and discordant sound. If there’s a glossary to catalog the vocabulary of elephant seals, it would have to include grunts, squeals, bleats, bellows, groans, roars, grumbles, croaks, screams, barks, snorts, belches, cackles, moos and what, to the untrained ear, is an almost perfect imitation of a two-ton bullfrog.
That basso profundo croak is produced by the adult males who bellow through the pendulous noses that give them their name. The schnoz on an alpha male can grow two feet long and, besides looking bizarre and providing an acoustic instrument, is a secondary sex characteristic that by its very size helps establish male superiority without the need to fight. Elephant seals are clumsy and inelegant on land and, unlike sea lions, their flippers aren’t very useful for terrestrial locomotion. So they move forward like fat slugs, squirming and lunging over the sand. Watching two alpha bulls charge each other chest-to-chest is both riveting and often hilarious. Their chests are covered with an armor-like padding of thick, “cornified” skin, so when they do fight they’re seldom seriously hurt, although their long, canine teeth are capable of drawing blood.
For male elephant seals, physical supremacy leads to sex, the jackpot of their genetic programming. Over a period of three months, the alpha bulls will stake out and defend a territory, gather a harem of up to 100 cows, drive off interlopers, wannabes and the occasional love-struck sub-adult male, and then mate tirelessly as much as eight to ten times a day. It has been estimated that only about 1 percent of male elephant seals get to have sex. The rest just hang around waiting. Imagine the frustration.
Elephant Seals Do It Deeper
For lucky males with access to the action, nothing seems to get in their way, not even the occasional hapless weaner crushed by an unseeing suitor. But to human observers, it isn’t sexual prowess that makes the elephant seals so impressive, it’s their incredible ability to fast and dive. During their three-month breeding binge the males don’t eat or drink anything. In fact, scientists believe that during the 3,000-mile, 40-day trip from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to Año Nuevo (and during the return trip), the males don’t eat either. They survive entirely on stored blubber, the 50 percent of their bodies composed of fat. So while obesity is a health-care crisis for humans, in elephant seals it’s a sign of biological success. Being fat improves survival.
And that’s not the only thing extreme about their feeding behavior. Their diving almost defies belief.
Male elephant seals are bottom feeders; they eat rays, skates, squid and small sharks in very deep, mostly pitch-black water. Some of their prey are bioluminescent—they glow—and the seals have enormous, very sensitive eyes and whiskers that help them locate food. To catch their prey, they go deeper than any other marine mammal except (perhaps) the sperm whale, deeper in fact than the deepest diving nuclear submarine that naval experts believe may be able to safely reach 2,500 to 3,000 feet (it’s classified). A male elephant seal has been measured at 5,800 feet, and 2,000-foot dives are routine. The average dive takes 20 or 30 minutes, and they can stay underwater up to two hours, frequently napping for an hour underwater. How they do it has been a focus of scientists at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who have conducted leading research on the beasts, outfitting seals with tracking and recording devices, and even video cameras.
Among their findings: Elephant seals carry vastly more oxygen in their blood than humans, more than eight times as much oxygen in their muscles, and they use it much more efficiently. UCSC researchers say the seals’ oxygen management suggests they have “an internal SCUBA tank.” When they dive, they completely deflate their lungs and glide down, saving energy, while restricting blood flow to their extremities and reducing their heart rate to four beats per minute.
It’s equally amazing that northern elephant seals even exist. By the end of the19th century, they had been hunted for their oil almost to extinction. In 1892 there was one colony left, on Guadalupe Island off Baja California, numbering perhaps 100 survivors. But then Mexico gave them protected status in 1922, the U.S. followed suit a few years later, and kerosene replaced animal oil for lighting. Today, after decades of exponential growth, the population has rebounded to more than 225,000.
The first wave of this seal revival hit Año Nuevo in 1955, and now at least 2,000 pups are born there each year. The colony has probably reached carrying capacity, and the overflow has begun to colonize other parts of the California coast, including the Pt. Reyes National Seashore and the Farallon Islands 26 miles offshore. Beginning in 1990, an enormous colony developed on the central California coast at Peidras Blancas, seven miles north of San Simeon. That colony now hosts up to 17,000 seals, with more than 3,500 pups born each year.
If you want to join the party at Año Nuevo, peak viewing season is December to February, although the adult seals begin returning in late December and they linger into March. They come back in the summer to shed their fur and outer skin in what is called a “catastrophic molt,” then depart until it’s time to repeat the cycle of birthing and breeding. Year-round, even on a random visit, you are likely to see some elephant seals.
The winter window allows both scientists and civilian voyeurs to witness the spectacle at a distance of only 25 feet. Outside African game parks, there may not be another place in the world where you can see a wild animal congregation so big, so loud, so real and so close.
Año Nuevo is less than a round-trip tank of gas from Sonoma—you can get there in under three hours (depending on rush-hour traffic)—and it’s only about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz, which makes for a perfect road trip weekend if you want to play along Monterey Bay.
Guided two-and-a-half-hour tours are still available until March 31, the official end of the annual mating-birthing orgy, while hundreds to thousands of weaned pups will remain on the beaches well into April. From then, until mid-December, you can visit the elephant seal preserve on your own, although a variety of guided tours are available year-round, from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
For more details, go to parks.ca.gov, and for a far better website full of elephant seal information, go to elephantseals.org.