One cool thing about getting into sea kayaking is getting to spend a lot of time on the water getting to know some of the coastal ecosystems. Encounters with harbor seals and sea lions have been common, dotting rocks and secluded beaches along the coastline, occasionally circling my boat while trying to figure out what to make of it. The two species are related, descending from an ancient land mammal that returned to aquatic life. Biologists classify them under the same superfamily or Clade of Pinnipeds. While sea lions tend to be larger and noisier than the shyer harbor seals, both species are intelligent, playful and curious.
Not until I started exploring central California though did I get the chance to get to know the Elephant Seal, another relative of harbor seals and sea lions, commonly known as Sea Elephants. They get their name from their protruding proboscis (snouts/noses) and their massive size. The males can get up to around 5000 pounds, and have a thick layer of blubber to keep them warm during their migrations up to the icy waters of the arctic. They are a sexually dimorphic species, where the females lack the proboscis and weigh about a quarter as much as the males. Like whales, they were once hunted for their blubber, and the Northern Elephant Seal endemic to North America was thought to be driven into extinction. But a small population remained on an isolated island, and partly due to the protection of these species, their numbers have rebounded to now exceed 100,000. On the California mainland there are still only a couple of populations left, with the beaches between San Simeon and the Piedras Blancas light house being one of the best places to see them.
The Sea Elephants do share some traits with Sea Lions and Seals, such as hauling out of the water to rest and for protection from their main predators, Great White Sharks and Orca Whales. But while they may some behaviors in common, their personalities are far more belligerent. Throughout their colonies the males extend their necks into the air, bellowing low pitch mating calls reminiscent of belching, a deep gurgling that can be heard from miles away. During the fall they'll spend a great deal of their time sparring, practicing for the upcoming mating season, throwing their weight on top of their opponents and going for the jugular. As they approach the winter rut, these sessions become increasingly violent and bloody. The victor earns the right to mate with a harem of up to 50 females, while the losers often become the dinner of the vultures circling overhead. When at the haul out, the time spent not fighting involves clumsily dragging their bodies through the sand a few feet at a time and resting, often climbing overtop of others and crushing them in the process.
To see these creatures only on land though gives an incomplete picture of the species. In the water they become surprisingly graceful. Their heads pull back towards their bodies, giving them the sleek torpedo like taper of a shark. Their blubber insulates them from the cold on deep water dives, reaching depths of up to a mile where their primary food the squid lives in abundance. They can stay under the surface hunting for up two hours without air.
Being only October, this trip was a couple of months early to see them in the full rut. I'm hoping to return at some point during the peak of mating season to get a few more pics of the more full-on battles.
Young males playfully sparing, preparing for the more aggressive battles in their years to come.