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Coastal California: Piedras Blancas

Piedras Blancas

Piedras Blancas is located on California’s central coast, just north of San Simeon. The point is named for a white rock out cropping located just off the end of the point. In the 1866, this location was chosen to fill the gap between the lighthouses at Point Conception and Point Sur. It is another beautifully scenic stop along the Pacific Coast’s Highway 1. But what makes it special is that Piedras Blancas is home to about 15,000 wild elephant seals. We visited Piedras Blancas on February 5, 2011, as part of our Coastal California road trip in celebration of Laura’s 40th Birthday, and we arrived during one of the most special times of year.

The northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris, is an extraordinary marine mammal. It spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1000 to 5000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest.

In late November through December the older males – both subadults and adults – arrive in the rookery and contest for areas of the beaches. Many battles occur but more disputes are settled by intimidation than by fighting with size, bellow and vigor substituted for the more energy expensive battles. The successful adults – the alpha males or beachmasters – will be in the rookery for three months without food or water and little opportunity for complete relaxation.

Beginning in mid-December the pregnant females arrive to give birth. Where they choose to come ashore determines which harem they join. They usually give birth within five days. Most females arrive in January with the peak of the birthing in the middle of the month.

The pups are born on the beach and ready to go very soon after birth. That a birth has occured is frequently announced by the gulls who swoop in on the mother and pup to obtain the after-birth. Mothers nurse their pups for about four weeks during which time it grows from about 70 pounds (30 kilograms) to over 300 pounds (135 kilograms). During this time, which is when we visited, males other than the alpha will try to sneak into the harem to breed. They are fun to watch as most such “sneakers” are very nervous and will flee on the slightest response from the alpha. Others will stand their ground and more robust action results. Toward the end of the nursing period the mother goes into estrous and breeds with the alpha. Shortly thereafter she leaves her pup and goes to sea.

Below is a photolog of our visit. You can click on any thumbnail to expand it and then manually cycle through all the gallery’s images and captions using the arrow buttons. Alternatively, you can click on the [show as slideshow] link below to initiate an automated slideshow of the entire gallery.

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