Santa Cruz, California – The strange behaviour of the elephants of the sea

We pass Silicon Valley and Stanford University on our way to Año Nuevo State Park that protects a habitat recaptured by elephant seals, the world’s largest seals. The northern sea elephants that populate Northern America’s west coast can become 16 ft / 5 m long and up to 6,000 lb / 2.7 tons heavy. Females are significantly smaller with maximum 10 ft / 3 m and 1,900 lb / 900 kg. The marine mammals got their name from the snout that the males with their scarred chests develop during their life and that’s especially long among the northern species – up to one foot / 30 cm. The larger southern elephant seals live in South America.

After mass slaughtering in the 19th century for commercial use of their blubber they were assumed to be extinct 100 years ago. But a small colony has survived and slowly spread out – genetically one-sided though. Every elephant seal spends several weeks without eating or drinking on land twice per year. The usual loners come to the beach for moulting in summer, but males and females, juveniles and elders chronologically staggered. All individuals meet at the beach for birth and mating from December to March. The rest of the time they spent out at the sea where they eat and sleep hovering. The males swim up to Alaska and the females far out into the Pacific to the continental shelf. Their diet consists of fish and squid.

To become an alpha bull, conquer a harem so to speak, a male has generally to be larger than his competitors, what he rarely reaches under the age of 13. His average life expectancy is 14. Females can become up to 20 years old. They bear one young that they suckle for four weeks with their mayonnaise-like milk, containing 55 % fat. The pub quadruples its weight during this time to nearly 900 lb / 400 kg during the mother looses weight at least to the same extent. In the end of the month both of them are distinguishable only by their fur colour – the young is dark at first. Then the mother crawls into the water without warning, swims away, and leaves the pub to its own devices. Some babies find a substitute mother that might have lost her own offspring and sucks until it is round as a ball and immobile. They are called super weaners. After their abandoning the weaners lay around for some weeks, changing their fur into silver-grey and living from their fat resources until, acting on a sudden impulse, they think eating and swimming might be a brilliant idea. In little tide pools and in shallow water they teach themselves swimming and diving until they take the view that they master it and take off to Alaska or the continental shelf. Their actuarial survival rate however is only 50 %, and just 30 % will make it to the next year and return to their birthplace. After escaping the danger of being mashed by a bull going berserk to mate and surviving their two-month fasting cure, white sharks and orcas wait in front of the coast for their favourite food.

At the entrance of Año Nuevo we have to pay the usual 10 $ entrance fee per vehicle that’s valid for all Californian state parks on that day. To get to the seals we have to take part in a ranger-leaded program for 7 $ per person that takes about two and a half hours. The hike (3 mi / 5 km) brings us very close to the animals. Elephant seals aren’t interested in humans at all. But the bulls indifferently crush everything in their way – you should better get out of their way. But most of the time the submarines lay around motionless. The weaners howl from time to time, the females loudly complain about whatever with their mouth flinging open, and the bulls create heart-rending, deep, and mechanically clicking sounds. But just to signalise superiority to a competitor that gets too close. Otherwise the mammals just move to throw sand on themselves – for cooling.

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