Monthly Archives: February 2008

Photo of Elephant Seal Bellowing

California, Elephant Seal, Wildlife

A photograph of a northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) “bull” bellowing on a central California beach. Other elephant seals can be seen on the sand and in the surf behind him. Bulls (adult males) spend a lot of time bellowing to communicate to surrounding elephant seals, including other bulls, the boundaries of their harem and beach territory and to issue challenges to other bulls that approach. The larger the bull, the deeper and louder the bellowing. As an elephant seal matures its proboscis (nose) grows huge, eventually obstructing the mouth and changing the sound of the bellowing so that it becomes a distinctive deep rumbling and popping sort of sound. Very curious and cool to listen to. Note that this fellow has some considerable scarring on his proboscis and about his chest, wounds acquired in combat with other bulls.

Male elephant seal rears up on its foreflippers and bellows to intimidate other males and to survey its beach territory.  Winter, Central California, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon

Male elephant seal rears up on its foreflippers and bellows to intimidate other males and to survey its beach territory. Winter, Central California.
Image ID: 15521
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Photo of Bull Elephant Seal Bellowing in Fog

California, Elephant Seal, Wildlife

Another photograph of a northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) “bull” bellowing on a foggy central California beach.

Partially obscured by coastal morning fog, this male elephant seal rears up on its foreflippers and bellows to intimidate other males and to survey its beach territory.  Winter, Central California, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon

Partially obscured by coastal morning fog, this male elephant seal rears up on its foreflippers and bellows to intimidate other males and to survey its beach territory. Winter, Central California.
Image ID: 20418
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Munch

California, Elephant Seal, Wildlife

Check it out, these are two bull elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) fighting for territory and mating access to females. The bull on the right has got the upper hand, having a firm grip on the proboscis (nose) of the seal on the left. It might look funny but it is quite brutal. I’d never seen this particular angle before.

Male elephant seals (bulls) rear up on their foreflippers and fight for territory and harems of females.  Bull elephant seals will haul out and fight from December through March, nearly fasting the entire time as they maintain their territory and harem.  They bite and tear at each other on the neck and shoulders, drawing blood and creating scars on the tough hides, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California

Male elephant seals (bulls) rear up on their foreflippers and fight for territory and harems of females. Bull elephant seals will haul out and fight from December through March, nearly fasting the entire time as they maintain their territory and harem. They bite and tear at each other on the neck and shoulders, drawing blood and creating scars on the tough hides.
Image ID: 20375
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Weaner

California, Elephant Seal, Wildlife

This is a “weaner”, a young northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) that has been weaned (is no longer nursing milk from its mother) and is now on its own. In fact its mother has probably already left the beach and is now at far at sea foraging for food. This young elephant seal will likely never meet its mother again.

Northern elephant seal, pup, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California

Northern elephant seal, pup.
Image ID: 00948
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Females nurse their pups on fat-rich milk for only 28 days. Shortly before she weans her pup, the female will mate with one or more of the mature bull elephant seals. She will then return to the ocean leaving the pup to fend for itself. At this point the 300 pound pup is called a weaner and its existence is quite precarious. It must learn to swim and forage for itself, living off its fat reserves as it does so. For two months a weaner will remain at the rookery, gradually gaining swimming and foraging skills. If it is successful and survives, it will adopt a diet of squid, fish, rays and small sharks.

Photo of an Elephant Seal Pup

California, Elephant Seal, Wildlife

This northern elephant seal pup (Mirounga angustirostris) looks like it has issues to work out with its mother.

Elephant seal mother and pup vocalize to one another constantly, likely to reassure the pup and confirm the maternal identity on a crowded beach.  Central California, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon

Elephant seal mother and pup vocalize to one another constantly, likely to reassure the pup and confirm the maternal identity on a crowded beach. Central California.
Image ID: 15421
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

In December females return to the colony and form harems around the males. Elephant seals are highly sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females differ in size considerably. Female elephant seals are much smaller than the males, up to 10 feet in length and weighing one ton. Generally within five days of their arrival at the colony from eight months at sea, the females give birth to a single pup that they have been carrying since the previous breeding season. Births are usually first observed in late December and continue increasingly through February, peaking near mid-February. Often seagulls will be the first to detect a new birth, flocking to the birth to feast on the discarded placenta. Vocal bonding between the pup and mother is critical and takes place immediately as this is the only certain way the mother and pup can identify one another if they are separated, which is a common occurrence on a crowded beach and beside 5000 pound males that do not hesitate to trample and push the pups aside while mating or fighting. Orphaned pups are commonly observed, usually through separation with their mothers or by virtue of a mother than is insufficiently mature to understand how to care for its pup. Some mothers who have lost their pup will attempt to steal another female’s pup. Some mothers will also tolerate an orphaned pup nursing, although this may actually doom both pups as it is thought that a mother only has enough milk supply to properly nourish a single pup each season, since for each pound that a pup gains its mother will have lost two. It is estimated that about 3500 pups were born at the Piedras Blancas rookery in 2005. Pups weigh up to 75 lbs. at birth and may be four feet long. When they are first born they carry a striking dark black, smooth coat which will gradually fade to brown as the pup matures.

Crowded Beach

California, Elephant Seal, Wildlife

Here we see part of the burgeoning Piedras Blancas colony of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) crowding the beach. In actuality this is about half of the animals that were here at the peak, a few weeks earlier. Many of the females have already weaned there pups (or lost them during the high waves that came in January) and have mated, and are now back at sea.

Elephant seals crowd a sand beach at the Piedras Blancas rookery near San Simeon

Elephant seals crowd a sand beach at the Piedras Blancas rookery near San Simeon.
Image ID: 20358
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Although Northern elephant seals are oceanic animals and as individuals spend the majority of their life at sea, as a population elephant seals utilize the Piedras Blancas colony nearly year round. There are two principal reasons elephant seals come ashore: molting (shedding their fur coat) and birthing/breeding. From April through August the elephant seals return to shore to molt, with females and juveniles molting first followed by subadult males and finally adult males. By August they are gone, back at sea with a new coat of a fur. In fall, immature animals will haul out to rest, younger animals appearing in September and older animals later. However, in general these immature elephant seals, typically weaners, yearlings and subadults, do not stay into the breeding season, generally leaving by late November to make way for the older animals.

Bull Fog

California, Elephant Seal, Wildlife

I arrived at the elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) rookery before sunrise and walked out in heavy fog, not able to even see the water. Gradually the fog burned off as the sun appeared and I could start to see some of the seals. Here is a big bull splayed out on the sand, just visible through the clearing mist:

An enormous elephant seal bull male lays on the beach, partially obscured by typical central California coastal fog, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas, San Simeon

An enormous elephant seal bull male lays on the beach, partially obscured by typical central California coastal fog.
Image ID: 20399
Species: Elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Photo of McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Photo of the Day

I stopped for a bit in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur, to make the short walk to McWay Falls. I walked over to the bluff you see above and to the right of the falls, the one with the trees overlooking the ocean. There is a small campground hidden in those trees, probably the coolest little camp hideout I have ever seen, I had no idea it was there. It would be great to set up our little tent and spend an afternoon on that perch, among the trees, with the falls just below. McWay Falls is fed by underground springs so it flows strongly year-round. It drops from oceanside cliffs directly onto the sand of McWay Cove and, when viewed from the overlook, is surrounded by the incredible Big Sur coastline. I saw a few gray whales blow and sound while I was there. Its a great place and literally only about 10 minutes by foot from Highway 1.

McWay Falls drops 80 feet on the sand in McWay Cove.  McWay Falls is fed by springs so falls year round, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California

McWay Falls drops 80 feet on the sand in McWay Cove. McWay Falls is fed by springs so falls year round.
Image ID: 20363
Location: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California, USA

McWay Falls drops 80 feet on the sand in McWay Cove.  McWay Falls is fed by springs so falls year round, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California

McWay Falls drops 80 feet on the sand in McWay Cove. McWay Falls is fed by springs so falls year round.
Image ID: 20365
Location: Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Big Sur, California, USA

Photos of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

Photo of the Day

The Piedras Blancas lighthouse, which sits on BLM land just north of San Simeon and Hearst Castle in central California, originally stood 115 feet tall when it was completed in 1875. It is one of only two coastline “tall-style” lighthouses on the California coast, the other being at Point Arena. The original lens and lensroom were damaged in a storm, and now the lens is on display in the town of Cambria nearby. A replacement, automated light is now in use in the tower.

Piedras Blancas lighthouse.  Completed in 1875, the 115-foot-tall Piedras Blancas lighthouse is one of the few tall-style lighthouses on the West Coast of the United States.  Piedras Blancas, named for a group of three white rocks just offshore, is north of San Simeon, California very close to Hearst Castle

Piedras Blancas lighthouse. Completed in 1875, the 115-foot-tall Piedras Blancas lighthouse is one of the few tall-style lighthouses on the West Coast of the United States. Piedras Blancas, named for a group of three white rocks just offshore, is north of San Simeon, California very close to Hearst Castle.
Image ID: 20348
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Piedras Blancas lighthouse.  Completed in 1875, the 115-foot-tall Piedras Blancas lighthouse is one of the few tall-style lighthouses on the West Coast of the United States.  Piedras Blancas, named for a group of three white rocks just offshore, is north of San Simeon, California very close to Hearst Castle

Piedras Blancas lighthouse. Completed in 1875, the 115-foot-tall Piedras Blancas lighthouse is one of the few tall-style lighthouses on the West Coast of the United States. Piedras Blancas, named for a group of three white rocks just offshore, is north of San Simeon, California very close to Hearst Castle.
Image ID: 15654
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Piedras Blancas lighthouse.  Completed in 1875, the 115-foot-tall Piedras Blancas lighthouse is one of the few tall-style lighthouses on the West Coast of the United States.  Piedras Blancas, named for a group of three white rocks just offshore, is north of San Simeon, California very close to Hearst Castle

Piedras Blancas lighthouse. Completed in 1875, the 115-foot-tall Piedras Blancas lighthouse is one of the few tall-style lighthouses on the West Coast of the United States. Piedras Blancas, named for a group of three white rocks just offshore, is north of San Simeon, California very close to Hearst Castle.
Image ID: 20350
Location: Piedras Blancas, San Simeon, California, USA

Photo of Sea Otter Mother and Pup

California, Morro Bay, Photo of the Day

On my way back down the coast from Big Sur I made a stop in Morro Bay for a bite, and to take a quick look in the harbor for interesting fishing boats, birds or otters. I didn’t see any good birds, and the light was overcast which made for poor photography of boats, but I went to my secret otter spot and lo-and-behold I found a raft of eight sea otters (Enhydra lutris), including three pups. This pup was constantly on the move, diving and swimming circles around its mother and making lots of loud chirping noises. In fact I heard him from far off before I even saw the otters. I hung out for about an hour trying to get some photos of the otters, but they were mostly resting, tied up in kelp to keep from drifting with the incoming tide.

A female sea otter floats on its back on the ocean surface while her pup pops its head above the water for a look around.  Both otters will wrap itself in kelp (seaweed) to keep from drifting as it rests and floats, Enhydra lutris, Morro Bay, California

A female sea otter floats on its back on the ocean surface while her pup pops its head above the water for a look around. Both otters will wrap itself in kelp (seaweed) to keep from drifting as it rests and floats.
Image ID: 20434
Species: Sea otter, Enhydra lutris
Location: Morro Bay, California, USA