If you’ve driven Highway 1 near San Simeon in the past few years, chances are you’ve noticed the extraordinary northern elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas Beach.
Last spring, when I stopped in after a reporting trip to disaster-prone Big Sur, a docent told me that the very best time to see the seals is mid-January. This, she said, is when the beach is most crowded with the prehistoric looking pinnipeds, birthing and mating and generally carrying on.
I couldn’t get away last month, but on Wednesday I made a dash for it. I needed some nature. I was kind of burned out on politics, partisanship and made-up national emergencies. I needed to remind myself that there is more to California than high real estate prices, homelessness and weather-driven catastrophes.
(When the wildflower bloom comes in the spring, I will be making the same kind of escape to the Antelope Valley, or the Carrizo Plain.)
Four hours after leaving Los Angeles, I arrived in San Simeon, where I picked up my guide, Tim Bridwell, a semi-retired hotel executive who is president of Friends of the Elephant Seal. The group, a nonprofit dedicated to educating people about the great beasts, trains docents, sells memberships and operates a small gift shop in its office.
We drove north a few miles to Piedras Blancas, then parked in a nearly empty lot. In summer, the lot is jammed with cars and buses. When Highway 1 is open, it draws close to a million visitors a year, most of them foreigners. But today was wet, windy and cold.
Pulling our hoods around our faces, we strolled along a wooden walkway that skirts the eastern edge of the beach.
From afar, the seals looked like rocks. Until they started to move.
The females and pups look like really big seals. But how to describe the males?
In their guidebook, “Elephant Seals,” Piedras Blancas docents Carole and Phil Adams offer up a few suggestions. “Moving mountains of blubber” is one.
I’m partial to “a lurching waterbed with the face of an elephant.”
The elephant seals at Piedras Blancas are a relatively new phenomenon.
The first ones showed up in 1990. Before that, the biggest rookeries were on California’s offshore islands and in Año Nuevo State Park, about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz.
By 2018, an estimated 5,800 pups were born here. The rookery has grown larger each year, and now covers about six miles of coast, and 11 beaches. As they have expanded their territory, the seals have forced a certain accommodation with human beings, who are asked to stay off the beach and steer clear of the seals, a protected species.
A few miles south of Piedras Blancas, a state beach called Arroyo Laguna is popular with windsurfers and kiteboarders. In recent years, though, the elephant seals have moved in.
Surfers still use the beach, but are supposed to steer clear of the animals.
Occasionally, a seal will stray.
Last month, a young male made it across Highway 1, and into a cow field on the east side of the road. San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputies coaxed it back across the highway, through a fence and onto the beach, and posted a video on their Facebook page.
“Why did the elephant seal cross the road?” joked the local paper.
Heather Liwanag, an assistant professor of biology at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, has recently begun studying the Piedras Blancas seal colony with a handful of grad students. She is fascinated not just by their physiology, but by their survival skills.
They are the deepest-diving pinnipeds, and spend more than 80% of their lives underwater. In the ocean, they live completely solitary lives, gathering in groups only when they are on shore twice a year.
In the 19th century, the seals were prized for their blubber after whales became scarce, and were hunted to the brink of extinction. By 1910, the entire population had dwindled to about 100 seals, who lived off the coast of Baja California on Guadalupe Island. All of today’s estimated 150,000 seals — about 10,000 of which are based at Piedras Blancas — are believed to be descended from those survivors.
At the edge of the beach, Bridwell and I stood, soaking wet, watching one of California’s great natural spectacles.
A few feet below us, along a quarter mile stretch of beach, thousands of the huge creatures carpeted the sand.
Various shades of brown, black and gray, they lay against each other. They slept, raised their heads to trumpet or squawk, slithered around each other, and tossed sand with their flippers.
Something about the rain, Bridwell said, made the seals even livelier than usual.
And all I can say is, if you think people get frisky around Valentine’s Day, you should see the elephant seals of Piedras Blancas. Up close, it was like watching a slo-mo Roman orgy, minus the arms and legs.
Giant males, with trunk-like noses that get longer with age, sidled up to the sleeker females of their harems and mounted them. The larger the nose, as they say, the more powerful the male.
Loud grunts filled the air. When they fight, the males can sound like souped-up trucks without mufflers. One researcher compared the sound to Jurassic Park.
Females hollered and squealed. Older males chased away curious younger males hoping in vain for a little action. Chubby pups, only a month old, huddled together away from the scrum, emitting high pitched screeches. (The recorded cries of elephant seal pups were used for the voices of small orcs by the sound designer for “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”)
The pups’ lives are precarious; before they even make it to the water, they can easily be crushed by “beachmasters,” the largest males, who can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and grow to a length of 14 to 16 feet.
“We call the little ones weaners,” said Bridwell, as we looked down at a clump of them. Their mothers, having nursed the pups for about a month, have already departed on their months-long ocean journeys which will take them thousands of miles into the northern Pacific Ocean before they return to Piedras Blancas to give birth.
Some of the pups are enormous — “super weaners” or “milk stealers” who have figured out how to suckle other mothers. The babies are hungry and very noisy about it. At this point, they have no idea that they can swim, and will not eat until they do. “It’s incredible,” said Liwanag, whose researchers spend five days a week with the seals. “They figure it all out by themselves.”
“The pups are so big and fat, they look like beach balls,” Bridwell said. “Their moms aren’t here anymore. You can just picture them saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ So they gravitate to each other.” Most will be at sea by April, and will spend five or six months there before returning to land for the first time.
On the sand, a seagull pecked at a dead pup — “a mortality,” as Bridwell gently called it. Of course, death is very common here. Most of the seals won’t live past their first experience in the ocean. If they do, they will return to Piedras Blancas twice a year for the rest of their lives — 14 years for males, 20 years for females.