SEALSOF AP­PROVAL

Andrew Curry mar­vels at the an­tics of two-tonne aquatic gi­ants that came close to ex­tinc­tion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Us Holidays -

EVEN be­fore I crest the sand dune, I can hear their growl­ing roars over the noise of the Pa­cific surf. The sound is some­thing like an idly revving mo­tor­cy­cle badly in need of a visit to the me­chanic. When I reach the top of the dune, I see two huge, rip­pling sacks of fat fac­ing each other, look­ing like gi­ant slugs.

They arch up to their full height, bul­bous noses swing­ing. Then the bat­tle be­gins in earnest. The two testos­teronecrazed male seals crash their bod­ies to­gether and tear at each other over and over with sharp ca­nine tusks. Blood quickly coats their broad chests and tints the surf pink.

The fight takes just a few min­utes. The win­ner re­sumes his spot amid the dozens of fe­male seals in his harem. The loser, van­quished, lies in the crash­ing surf for a while be­fore swim­ming a short way down the beach. He’ll prob­a­bly rest a bit be­fore tak­ing an­other shot some­where else.

Th­ese are ele­phant seals, the Cal­i­for­nia coast’s most curious wild at­trac­tion. From mid-De­cem­ber un­til early March, thou­sands of seals the size of four­wheel-drives ar­rive to fight and for­ni­cate at pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble beaches just an hour south of San Fran­cisco.

Named for the large, dan­gling noses of the males (for seals, it seems, size does mat­ter), ele­phant seals spend most of their lives at sea, com­ing ashore only to mate, give birth and shed their skin.

At more than 2000kg, ele­phant seals are the largest land-go­ing mam­mals af­ter ele­phants, al­most twice as big as a wal­rus and not nearly as cute. Nor are they par­tic­u­larly good at get­ting about on land. They flop up on to a few se­lect beaches in Cal­i­for­nia each win­ter for a three-month blub­bery, vi­o­lent orgy.

It is a bright morn­ing in Jan­uary when I drive over the Santa Cruz moun­tains and down to the Pa­cific to con­front th­ese beasts. Ano Nuevo, the largest main­land seal rook­ery in the US, is nes­tled on a rocky point just an hour south of San Fran­cisco. The beach is part of a state park that sprawls for kilo­me­tres along some of Cal­i­for­nia’s most scenic coast­line, sand­wiched be­tween the fa­mous High­way 1 and the sea.

Dur­ing breed­ing sea­son, guided tours of the ele­phant seal beaches leave sev­eral times an hour from a cen­tury-old white­washed dairy barn over­look­ing the crash­ing surf of the Pa­cific. Af­ter a short hike across green mead­ows and past a small pond dot­ted with brown pel­i­cans, I ar­rive at a small hut painted with ele­phant seals and a metal plac­ard read­ing, ‘‘ Warn­ing: wild ele­phant seals. Stay back 25 feet.’’

For­tu­nately, ele­phant seals are more in­ter­ested in charg­ing each other than hu­mans. They spend at least eight lonely months a year at sea be­fore haul­ing up on Cal­i­for­nia’s beaches. First to ar­rive are the males, filled with more testos­terone than an East Ger­man ath­lete. Chests scarred by bloody bat­tles with ri­val seals, they spend much of the win­ter in fat-rip­pling com­bat. Like hu­man males, the fights stem from one of two causes: land or ladies.

As fe­male seals be­gin lum­ber­ing ashore, the largest and most ag­gres­sive males gather dozens of them to­gether into harems. At the height of breed­ing sea­son, more than 2400 fe­males pack the beaches un­der the beady black eyes of a few hun­dred al­pha males.

The most suc­cess­ful will mate with 50 fe­males dur­ing the win­ter months, each one los­ing one-third of his body weight in the process. No won­der few males sur­vive more than one breed­ing sea­son. The fe­males, mean­while, land on the beach heav­ily preg­nant and ea­ger to find a strong male to pro­tect them.

They pup al­most im­me­di­ately. Af­ter nurs­ing their ba­bies for a month on milk that’s more than half fat, the moth­ers mate and head out to sea, leav­ing the hap­less baby seals to learn how to swim and hunt on their own.

‘‘ It’s re­ally won­der­ful that peo­ple can see the an­i­mal’s whole life cy­cle in the wild, not in a zoo,’’ says Ano Nuevo State Park ranger Frank Balthis.

Just 50 years ago, Ano Nuevo’s beaches were empty. Be­gin­ning in the 1800s, ele­phant seals up and down the coast were hunted for their blub­ber, and by 1883 the species was con­sid­ered ex­tinct. But be­cause a few were al­ways out at sea, a tiny pop­u­la­tion — fewer than 100, ex­perts now be­lieve — sur­vived on re­mote is­lands off the coast of Baja, Mex­ico.

When sci­en­tists lo­cated this last ele­phant seal colony in 1892, they promptly killed seven of them for the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s col­lec­tions.

Thank­fully, de­spite the ef­forts of mu­seum col­lec­tors and poach­ers, the colony sur­vived long enough for the Mex­i­can and US gov­ern­ments to recog­nise ele­phant seals as a pro­tected species, and in the cen­tury since they have made a re­mark­able come­back. From that measly Baja colony, there are now more than 150,000 of th­ese gi­ants swim­ming in the Pa­cific and flop­ping heav­ily ashore each win­ter from Baja to the north­ern Cal­i­for­nia coast.

Ano Nuevo’s an­nual open-air seal cir­cus is im­mensely pop­u­lar; the twohour walk­ing tours fill up months in ad­vance and lo­cal en­thu­si­asts guide al­most 50,000 peo­ple through the dunes to cel­e­brate the ele­phant seals’ tri­umphant re­turn from the brink of ex­tinc­tion.

Check­list

Dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son, De­cem­ber 15 to March 31, ac­cess to the re­serve is avail­able only by daily guided walks; reser­va­tions are rec­om­mended. The re­serve is lo­cated on State High­way 1 be­tween Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay, about a 11/ hour drive south of San Fran­cisco. Qan­tas Hol­i­days has re­turn Syd­ney to San Fran­cisco flights from $2249 a per­son with four nights at the Ho­tel Me­trop­o­lis. Avail­able un­til April 17 for travel from May 2 to May 12 and May 17 to the end of the month. It also of­fers ho­tel-only deals and sight­see­ing tours. More: 131 415; www.qan­tas.com.au/hol­i­days.

www.parks.ca.gov

Happy slap­pers:

Ele­phant seal pups play at the edge of pound­ing surf, above; the sweep­ing vista of Ano Nuevo beach, right

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