Young elephant seals arrive continuously at Piedras Blancas north of San Simeon during October. They gather for the fall haul-out, an elephant seal trick or treat.
The seals arrive one by one, stay for about six weeks, then depart to migrate north again. They’ll leave as adult bulls begin arriving around Thanksgiving, taking over the beach for the breeding season.
Young male and female seals are on the beach in the fall.
The nature of seal maturation results in way more male than female seals on the beach now.
Males mature more slowly than females. Males enter puberty around age 5, when that nose starts to grow.
Females mature at a younger age. Some get pregnant and have their first pup when they are 2 years old, and nearly all by the time they are 5.
They were last on the beach in May and June, when they molted their skin.
Elephant seals’ first migration
The young of the year are the smallest seals on the beach, the pups born last winter. They have spent the past months, since they left the beach in March and April, learning to dive and hunt for fish and squid.
Young of the year, even on their first migration, dive as deep as 4,000 feet. With no guidance, they found the northern feeding grounds along Canada’s west coast, perhaps as far north as the Aleutians, where the adult males feed.
As they return to Piedras Blancas, their dives make forward progress. Typically, they come to the surface to breathe for two or three minutes, take a final breath, breathe out, then dive. They may glide down or propel themselves downward. Along the way, they hunt and eat what they catch.
After 20 or 30 minutes, they turn and swim back up to the surface to breathe. The return to the surface also brings them forward, south, returning to Piedras Blancas.
The young of the year who return are the survivors of their first migration. They may not be any bigger than when they left the beach in March.
Any pup that survives is a success. Only about half survive that first migration. They’ll gain weight in the future. As small as they are now, they are the future beachmasters and supermoms.
I watched a small seal, probably a returning pup, approach a sleeping juvenile male, as if to nurse on its side. Finding no reward, the young seal settled down to rest between two older, bigger seals.
Life on the beach
None of the seals eat while they are on the beach. Their systems change, from getting nutrition from their food to metabolizing their blubber.
They don’t drink at any time, Their large kidneys filter salt from the prey they eat and maintain their normal tissue balance.
Young males engage each other in battle, but it’s not serious fighting among this age group. It’s practice for adulthood, and, along with just being out of the water, a way to strengthen their bones.
Visitors often remark on how much the tussling reminds them of their own teenage boys.