BZ's Elephant Seals

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On a little visited stretch of beach on the California Coast can be found the massive, majestic, and slightly odd looking Elephant Seals. While everyone has seen sea lions and even harbor seals, the elephant seal remains something of an enigma - even to native Californians.
The thing is, you have to go out of your way to find them. They're not in San Francisco, Monterey, or Sea World. There are only a few places on the California coast where the Elephant Seals congregate, and Ano Nuevo is the most famous of them.

Used a Nikon D200 w/ a 70-300mm VR lens for these shots.
- Bernard Zee

OK, technically NOT an Elephant Seal!
While hanging around waiting for the tour start time, I wandered over to where some Pelicans were making occasional passes.

I really liked these in-flight shots, so I threw them in. As far as I can tell, they are Brown Pelicans.

Ano Nuevo, a California State Natural Reserve, is located 55 miles south of San Francisco. It is the site of the largest breeding colony for the northern elephant seal.

Reservations for the 2.5 hour walking tour is required, and they sell out early!

The 3 mile hike is mostly over level ground, but there's some bits over sand dunes and small rises.

Winter time has the best viewing, as the males, females, and pups are all there.

Visitors are asked to keep at least 25 feet away from the Elephant Seals. In addition, we have to stick close to the tour guide.

The strategy for observing them seems to be 'stay on the high ground'. Elephant seals apparently have a hard time climbing hills (like me!).

Hard to tell from this picture, but mature males average 14 ft, and 5000 lbs! That's as much weight as my old Land Cruiser truck!

There's a large size difference between the male and female. The females average 11 ft, and 1400 lbs. There's actually not much a female can do to fend off unwanted advances from a male.

Female elephant seals congregate in groups (or harems) for protection, where they mate with a single Alpha Bull.

Well, at least that's the theory. In practice, they seem to be constantly bothered by lesser males on the edge of the group, who try to sneak in for a quickie while the Alpha bull is otherwise preoccupied.

It's a hard life being king of the hill. The Alpha must must actively protect his territory and females from all challengers. Consequently, there's no eating or drinking for the entire time (3 to 4 months) that they're there!

What little baby elephant seals must do is get lots of milk, and try avoid being squashed by the males!

Elephant seals are called that because... of their great size and large proboscis. Only the males have the floppy nose thing.

For being the huge massive creatures that they are, they can lurge around the sand pretty fast!

In comparison, an average full grown cow (moo moo type) weighs 1300lbs. Hard to imagine this big guy weighs more than 3 cows rolled together!

It was supposed to rain the day we visited Ano Nuevo. But luck was with us, and it was only cold and very windy. :-) It was an overcast day, with the sun occasionally peaking out. So the light was constantly changing.
If I recall correctly, the ranger estimated that there were between 3 and 4 thousand elephant seals there. I didn't try to count...

While we were able to get pretty close to some of the slumbering giants, we stayed well back from the active ones.

Being run over by an adult male (or even a female) would not only cause extensive internal injuries and broken bones - but be extremely embarrassing as well!

Even with my 300mm lens (with a 1.5x multiplier on the DX sensor), I still wanted to get even closer! But, I'm a good boy and I follow directions. sigh.

The males posture and fight each other constantly to establish a pecking order. Between their bellows and those of the females and pups, the beach was quite a noisy place!

It is quite obvious that these 2 pups are living the good life. Size is life out there, and these super pups (which to me look like huge stuffed sausages) have the best chance of survival. Super pups grow much larger than normal because they've managed to suckle from more than one milk source. Resourceful little buggers.

Elephant seal mating...

They look pretty cool when they rear up like that.

But they don't usually hold the pose long. Only when fighting or moving.

Most of the time, they are found stretched out prone.

A nice siesta for these two.

While they sort of barely get by on land, they are nothing short of amazing in the water. This species normally dives to depths of 1000ft, with some going as deep as 5000ft! The dive record is nearly a mile, with a time of 119 minutes. In comparison, Stellar Sea Lions dive to depths of 600 ft, while I can dive only about 15 ft... :-)

They feed on a wide range of fish and cephalopods. Mostly squid, octopus, and small sharks. Imagine how much squid they have to put away to get so big!

I asked the kids to go give it a hug. Haha, very funny Dad!

I wish there was a person there to give a sense of scale. Think 14 ft long, people!

The males really only fight when they are evenly matched - and both think they have a shot of coming out on top. After the contest is decided, the loser will almost always back down in the future.

Females don't fight in the traditional sense. They do defend their piece of beach from other females though. There are good spots and not so good spots. If it's not far enough from the water, a wave or tidal surge can pull the young ones out to sea and drown them before they learn to swim.

The edge of the harem is also frequently subjected to sneak attacks from lesser males hanging about the periphery.

Older males will exhibit a lot of scarring from their years of battling.

The undisputed king of the hill.

He doesn't ask. He just bulldozes forward. Everyone else either makes room, or be squashed!! Such is the life of the Elephant Seal.