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Hard out there for a pup: Newborn elephant seals face daily struggle to survive

Sharks, starvation, disease, getting crushed by 5,000-pound males — early life for elephant seals is filled with peril.

SAN SIMEON, Calif. (CN) — Sensing trouble, four elephant seal pups scamper in different directions as a massive adult male makes a blubbery beeline toward them.

The 5,000-pound bull actually has its sights set on another male, seeking a showdown. But in the rugged rookery environment, a 70-pound pup can easily get crushed as collateral damage.

“The adults are not always aware of the pups,” said Kathleen Curtis, president and board liaison for research and communications with the Friends of the Elephant Seal, which educates the public and protects the seals.

In San Simeon, the months of January and February will see the births of roughly 5,000 elephant seals. Yet, along this postcard-perfect stretch of Central California coast, wildlife death is common, and only half of the pups will live to their first birthday.

“They face a lot of obstacles,” said Shayla Zink, operations coordinator for San Luis Obispo operations with the Marine Mammal Center, which rescued 139 elephant seals in 2022.

A male elephant seal, easily identified by his trunk-like nose, rises among a pack of females and pups. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

The northern elephant seal was named for the large trunk-like nose that is characteristic of the adult male. Around 1900, the curious-looking mammals were nearly extinct, having been hunted for their oil-rich blubber.  But with protected status in both Mexico and the United States, elephant seal populations thrived and expanded. In 1990, they began arriving at this rocky stretch of beach known as Piedras Blancas, roughly 250 miles south of San Francisco.

While the coast is clear — few buildings can be seen for miles along this part of iconic Highway 1 — every year, a million tourists from around the world stop at Piedras Blancas.

For a rural place, there’s lots to see.

To the north, within view of the elephant seal rookery, the historic Piedras Blancas Lighthouse provides an intriguing glimpse to the maritime past. A dozen miles further, visitors will enjoy the southern stretch of Big Sur, the stunningly gorgeous coastline where mountains meet the sea. And just a short hop to the south of the rookery, visitors often stop by the Hearst Castle — the one-time abode of media mogul William Randolph Hearst.

While Hearst’s extravagant estate famously provided a playground for A-list celebrities in the 1930s, today the elephant seals are the biggest stars in San Simeon. For the crowds that gather here, the winter months offer some of the best viewing as elephant seal mothers, fathers and pups can all be seen at the same time.

But it’s not exactly a warm and loving family portrait.

“There’s no family life in the elephant seal world,” said Curtis, former dean of health sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso.

After foraging in the open ocean for several months, the massive males return to land around December, where they have one thing in mind.

“Their primary objective in being on the beach is to mate with the females,” Curtis said. “There is almost nothing that gets in their way of accomplishing that.”

At the same time females, weighing considerably less, begin giving birth. As they nurse their pups, the mothers will also protect the babies from high tides and big swells.

Adult elephant seals can dive as far as 5,000 feet in the ocean, but for newborns, the sea can be a death trap.

“Newborn pups don’t have the blubber layer,” Curtis said. “They’re vulnerable to hypothermia, and they don’t know how to swim.”

Adult females can sometimes shield their young from the water, but motherly love doesn’t last long. After roughly a month of nursing, the moms head for the sea, leaving the pups to fend for themselves.

For young elephant seals, it’s the school of hard knocks, where lessons can be fatal. If they aren’t crushed by the bulls, they might succumb to disease, malnutrition, or parasites. And as they teach themselves to swim and eat, they risk becoming food.

“We have white sharks right offshore,” Curtis said. “They’re likely to run into orcas along the way, which is their primary predator.”

An elephant seal pup lies beneath a massive bull. Male elephant seals, weighing up to 5,000 pounds, often inadvertently crush seal pups. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

While basic survival is a challenge for these pups, volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center help increase their odds of living to their maximum lifespan — 14 to 20 years. The center features over 1,300 volunteers in California and Hawaii who help rescue marine wildlife in peril.

“Right now we’re getting a handful of calls a day,” Zink said of the San Luis Obispo County location.

That schedule will get busier in March, she said, when elephant seal mothers abandon their offspring. Malnourished pups are taken to the center’s Morro Bay triage facility before transport to the center’s hospital in Sausalito, the largest marine mammal hospital in the world. Rehabilitation starts with “fish smoothies” that are usually fed to the animals through tubes, Zink said.

The volunteers also expose the pups to fish and teach them to swallow. After several months, the pups are released back into the wild.

“It’s super rewarding going through a release,” said Zink, who recently helped rescue a malnourished pup named Moochie — the first 2023 pup rescue in San Simeon. “It’s hard not to get emotional.”

The public can get rescue updates from the center’s online database. As the site notes, the center also promotes ocean conservation, education and scientific research.

California sea lions are the most common animals the center treats, with elephant seals next in line.

If pups manage to survive land and sea, there’s no place like home. After they teach themselves to swim and eat, they return to the beach where they were born, and the cycle repeats.

On a recent weekend, bulls occasionally charged one another, jousted and grunted, but mostly it was all talk and they resumed sleeping — a common event in the Piedras Blancas rookery. As the curious creatures crammed the beaches, huge crowds of spectators arrived in continuous shifts.

Near the slumbering seals, docents from the Friends of the Elephant Seals educated the public from an information tent. One volunteer, Duffy Burns, stood next to an elephant seal skull, explaining to a visitor how pups use unique screams to communicate with their mothers.

While the Marine Mammal Center has existed since 1975, the Friends organization was formed in 1997. As the seal population has expanded to 25,000, the Friends have worked with federal and state agencies to both educate the public and protect the creatures.

Many of the 125 volunteers, Curtis said, are retired teachers, scientists and health care professionals, who volunteer 365 days a year.

“It’s a very passionate group,” Curtis said.

Those who can’t make it in person can learn about the elephant seals via YouTube, where educational videos appear in 14 languages, and everyone can watch the seals any time on the captivating webcams.

While reaching adulthood will be a struggle for the pups, the presence of so many adults proves that elephant seals can persevere. “I think it’s inspirational that, given all these conditions, they can do so well,” Curtis said.

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