ELE­PHANT SEAL PUPS

The Tribune (SLO) - - The Cambrian - BY CHRIS­TINE HEINRICHS Chris­tine Heinrichs is a cer­ti­fied California Nat­u­ral­ist who writes about wildlife.

face un­cer­tain fu­ture as they be­gin their mi­gra­tion from the Piedras Blan­cas rook­ery.

This year’s weaned ele­phant seal pups look grown up now, with their new, ma­ture skin. They’re fat and ready to set off on their first mi­gra­tion.

A few thin males linger on the beach, rest­ing a few more days be­fore they de­part for north­ern wa­ters. They’ve been on the beach for as long as 100 days with­out food. They are at the phys­i­cal low point of their year. They’ll spend the next four or five months feed­ing along the con­ti­nen­tal shelf of North Amer­ica. They’ll be back in July and August with tons more blub­ber.

A few adult fe­males showed up on the beach. They look fat and healthy, but not yet peel­ing off their skin in the an­nual molt. They may be seals that have skipped hav­ing a pup this year. Al­though over 90 per­cent of fe­males have a pup ev­ery year, some don’t. Those that aren’t preg­nant may ar­rive on the beach early, in Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, or late, in early March.

Patrick Robinson, direc­tor of the Ano Nuevo Re­serve, has seen these late-ar­riv­ing female seals that haven’t given birth mat­ing with males.

“We def­i­nitely have a few ob­ser­va­tions of fe­males skip­ping the breed­ing season and com­ing back for as lit­tle as a sin­gle day in March to breed,” he said. “It’s hard to know for any in­di­vid­ual un­tagged seal, but they can def­i­nitely get back on schedule quickly if they skip breed­ing for a year.”

Most of the seals on the beach are the Class of 2019 wean­ers. They are born black, but molt that new­born coat af­ter they are weaned. Their new skin is dark on top, light on the belly.

It’s call coun­ter­shad­ing, and gives them some cam­ou­flage from preda­tors. The light belly blends with the bright light of the sur­face to preda­tors look­ing up from below. The dark back blends into the dark depths to preda­tors look­ing down from above.

They spend most of their time sleep­ing, but one at a time, they ven­ture into the surf. Some have al­ready left, mi­grat­ing north. No one shows them the way. It’s one of the mys­ter­ies of an­i­mal mi­gra­tion. Some may get as far north as Alaska, but most prob­a­bly don’t get that far.

About half sur­vive to re­turn from that first mi­gra­tion in Septem­ber. It’s a tough world out there. The half that don’t make it prob­a­bly ei­ther can’t find enough food or are eaten by preda­tors.

Starv­ing wean­ers are al­ready wash­ing up on area beaches and be­ing res­cued by teams of vol­un­teers from The Ma­rine Mam­mal Cen­ter. Call TMMC in Morro Bay at 805-771-8300 if you see one on the beach. Cen­ter vol­un­teers will mon­i­tor the pup for 24 hours or more, de­pend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion and, if nec­es­sary, res­cue it safely.

Check the TMMC “cur­rent pa­tients” page for up­dates on res­cued wean­ers. Stay back 100 feet or so from a stranded seal. Res­cued wean­ers are ap­peal­ing, but they need to stay wild so that they can be re­ha­bil­i­tated and re­leased to their home.

CHRIS­TINE HEINRICHS Spe­cial to The Cam­brian

A weaned ele­phant seal pup at the Piedras Blan­cas rook­ery.

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