It’s a valid question in the year 2012. I can give a 100% guarantee that the world will end for each and every one of us… some day… and during some of those living days, one or two groups might stir up the belief that they’re taking everybody with them, calling it the next new word for ‘apocalypse’. My question is: what comes after?
The answer splashed in front of me on a trip to the central coast of California when I read the following plaque:
Point Piedras Blancas, A Recent Colony: Thousands Strong and Growing
The Elephant Seal Apocalypse
In the 1800’s whalers of the central coast discovered that elephant seal blubber was an extremely high quality oil. The seals were hunted by the thousands and a mass unchecked blood bath took place. In 1922, Mexico became the first government to protect elephant seals; but it was too late. These animals were thought to be extinct within the region.
The elephant seals are an example of a species that witnessed the end of their world.
Then, remarkably, in 1990, biologists spotted over a dozen elephant seals along the Point Piedras Blancas beach near Hearst Castle. In 1992, the first pup was born and by 1996 females gave birth to over 1,000 pups. Today the total population of this colony is estimated at more than 15,000.
The Cycle of the Ancients
Elephant seals at Point Piedras Blancas are thought to originate from a colony on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California. When they aren’t diving down hundreds of feet and swimming thousands of miles to find food in the Pacific Ocean, they come here to reproduce and molt. Their cycle — that can be witnessed by visitors today — is replicated from their ancestors that go back into ancient times.
While elephant seals swim alone to find food, when they reach the shore, they form into colonies.
During the birthing and breeding season (from around December to March) males challenge other males in bloody battles, giving out noisy calls.
Females spend their entire adult life pregnant or nursing. They don’t eat at all while at the shore, losing over a third of their body weight. Females give birth and nurse and then, before returning to the ocean, they mate with the dominant males.
Most pups weigh about 65 pounds at birth and by the time they are weaned, they can grow up to 300 pounds. Super weaner pups who steal milk from other females can exceed 500 pounds.
The color of the coat gives a clue about the age of the weaned pup. A pup less than six weeks old has a black coat. At six weeks of age, the black coat is replaced by a silver coat. Thereafter, the coat changes to an adult color of light brown on the stomach and darker brown on the back.
From around April to August, elephant seals come to the shore to endure a catastrophic molt, meaning they shed all their fur over several weeks. Since they don’t eat during this time, conserving energy is vital. Still, flipping happens often and is believed to serve as sun screen. Also, juvenile males spar to prepares themselves for their future mating battles.
The Brand New World
Elephant seals are protected by the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, but they lead a dangerous life nevertheless. Half of all pups don’t live to see their first birthdays. In particular, great white sharks and orcas find them to be excellent meals.
These creatures are amazing to watch and, to me, they show that perhaps the end of the world never has to be the end of the world. For elephant seals, there’s been a revival. A final note, however, about the health care system at Point Piedras Blancas. A placard puts it succinctly: “You may see elephant seals being injured in the course of their normal daily lives. Nature can be brutal. Please do not interfere.”
Check out the Friends of the Elephant Seal for more information about these ancient creatures.
Address: 15950 Cabrillo Highway
San Simeon, CA 93452