Andrew Curry marvels at the antics of two-tonne aquatic giants that came close to extinction
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.
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.
Elephant seal pups play at the edge of pounding surf, above; the sweeping vista of Ano Nuevo beach, right