Exploring Our CoastFebruary 2012
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Ruth Ann Angus
Ruth Ann Angus
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Elephant Seals of Piedras Blancas

by Ruth Ann Angus


Whalers and sealers hunted them for their blubber. By the end of the 1880's they were thought to be extinct. But a small colony — between 20 to 100 individuals — managed to survive and took up residence on Guadalupe Island, off Baja, California. All of the elephant seals on the West Coast of the continent are descended from this group.

They lie like slugs on the beach, continuously flipping sand over their backs. Now and then two or more rear up, challenging each other with mock battle roars. This is how it is in elephant seal breeding season at Piedras Blancas Lighthouse on the Central Coast of California. Elephant seals began hauling out on a secluded beach just south of the lighthouse in 1990. It was an extraordinary occurrence that delighted the public traveling Highway 1 north of San Simeon.

Young Males

While some elephant seals are always present at Piedras Blancas, the most interesting time to visit is during breeding season, from November through February. Beaches are jammed with chubby females giving birth, little black pups suckling, and huge blubbery males doing battle.

Male seals begin to arrive in late November and stake out their positions on the beach. Dominant bulls, the ones that have the best chance to mate with the most females, threaten away lesser males and take up residence waiting for the females to arrive.

One of the most exciting things to witness is a battle between two of these large bulls. When approached by another male, the resident bull will rear up on his hindquarters, throw his head back, and roar out a threat.  His large, bulbous nose dips down into his gaping mouth.  Then each bull rears up and with great force they slam their bodies at each other, slashing away with their large canine teeth.  Fights can last a few minutes or go on for hours. Usually the battle ends with one bull being forced into the water or backing away submissively.


Pregnant females arrive on the beaches in December and, after four or five days, give birth to one pup that arrives thin, wrinkled, and black. Most pups begin to suckle soon after birth. Elephant seal milk is the richest of all mammals with a high percentage of fat. The pups gain weight quickly on this, doubling and quadrupling their size in less than a month.


Nursing lasts for approximately 28 days. In the last three to five days the females are ready for breeding. Now the alpha bull takes advantage of his position to mate with the most females. Within a month after giving birth, females are impregnated. The female heads out to sea leaving her now plump, molting pup on shore, a little more than a month after arriving at the rookery.

Elephant seals are unique in that they will tolerate people better than other pinnipeds. This fact was evidenced at Piedras Blancas, where in years past, groups of people gathered near them on the beaches, some even sitting on their backs to pose for pictures. The seals are federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and hefty fines can be levied for harassing them.


The organization Friends of the Elephant Seal was formed in 1997 and trained docents were placed on site to interact with the public. They offer information about the seals and provide scopes and binoculars for people to use.

The Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Colony is located on scenic coast Highway 1 approximately 45 miles north of San Luis Obispo near the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, just south of Big Sur.  The site is open all year round with docents present every day from 10 A.M. to 4 P.M. during breeding season, and on weekends and holidays at other times. Seals are viewed on the beaches from a boardwalk bluff above. Parking and entrance are free.

More information may be obtained from the Friends of the Elephant Seals, P. O. Box 490, Cambria, CA 93428 or at Elephant Seal.org.
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