Pacific Serendipity by Cecilia M. Miller

A warm early summer day found us leisurely driving north on California’s Highway One between San Luis Obispo and Monterey. The roadway follows the bays, points, valleys and canyons that trail alongside the Pacific Ocean. It is a byway of a bygone era as it necessitates a slower pace and ease in your driving that is not favored by the masses these days.

On this road the primary goal is the journey, not the destination. The day we most recently traveled this path, the hillside pastures were a khaki brown and the sky was a gentle baby blue that met the Pacific at the western horizon. The color of the Pacific water here is different than that of other Pacific areas. The water appears as a magical liquid sapphire that lovingly rushes to the 14-karat gold beach line.

As we cruised north of San Simeon, in northern San Luis Obispo County, we happened on to the most amazing of experiences…truly Pacific Serendipity! Our curiosity drew us to investigate a gathering crowd huddled on the sand. In all of my obsessive-compulsive travel planning I had never even come upon information that would have led us here. Maybe that led us to appreciate our circumstance even more.

The view before us looked like a giant deli tray filled with huge bratwurst all lined up in a row. A local docent was in the midst of the group and busily answering the questions of our fellow on-lookers. Quickly we learned that what we were viewing was in excess of 200 molting sub-adult male Northern Elephant Seals.

Later research told us that the females of this species tend to appear feminine and demurely smiling. An adult female will tip the scales at anywhere from 900-1800 pounds and be 9-12 feet long and will live about 20 years. Their young, known as pups, are pudgy babies with strikingly large round eyes. The pups suffer a mortality rate of 30-50%, suffered at the hands of other adult females and their rapid separation from their mothers.
Pups nurse for about a month and then are weaned when their mothers abruptly return to the sea, leaving the pups behind to teach themselves to swim and begin searching for their own food sources. Males can reach 3000-5000 pounds and 14-16 feet long and have about a 14-year life expectancy. The males boast their notorious Jimmy Durante noses from which they’ve derived the name of Elephant Seals. When a male reaches about 4 years of age they are considered a sub-adult and begin to develop an interest in breeding as well as begin to develop their trunk and shields. The shield is scar tissue that builds up around their necks as a result of battles of dominance. The proboscis is a secondary sexual characteristic of the males and can reach an amazing 2 feet in length. The males are not considered a bull until they reach about 9 years of age.

Bulls establish dominance through fights, though only about 1% of the time is there true physical warfare. The majority of their superiority is gained through shows of vocal and visual assertion. They toss their trunks and use it to resonate the growling challenges described as snorts, grunts, belches and gargles.

We learned that the great beasts we were watching were the sub-adult males as their molting season falls in May and June. The females and youth of the species take to the beaches to molt in April and May, while the adult males molt during July and August.

Molting is their natural phenomenon of replacing old skin and hair. Unlike other mammals, humans included, who shed hairs year-round, the Elephant seals molt all at once and therefore it is referred to as a catastrophic molt. They return to the breeding site of their colony to perform this ritual each year. During this time they slough off the entire surface layer of hair and skin to reveal a new smooth coat underneath. The entire process takes about three to four weeks.

We had the pleasure of viewing the rituals of the sub-adult males during their molting. They were mostly quite sedentary though on occasion they would throw some sand up over their backs. Occasionally two would rear up and challenge each other. This was quite a display of their gutteral sounds and the crashing of chests though neither would seem too interested in expending too much energy on such activity.

These massive creatures once numbered in the hundreds of thousands before hunting for their oil and skins in the 1800’s plummeted their population to what appeared to be fewer than 100 animals in all. An impressive recovery of this species was made through protection by the Mexican government and later also the Unites States. These marvelous beasts are now estimated to number approximately 60,000. We were graced by the viewing of this relatively new colony known as the San Simeon Elephant Seals.

We were so enamored to be in the presence of these captivating creatures during this moment of happenstance. If the time comes when you are lazily cruising the roadway of the mystical Pacific I encourage you to be on the lookout for an opportunity to congregate with these pinnipeds. When present on the sandy beaches they are easily visible and accessible.

I urge you however to remain respectful of this amazing population and to allow their sanctuary to be unblemished by humanity. Please view from a distance and do not disturb their colony. Allow the Northern Elephant Seals to enchant you and show you the wonder of Pacific Serendipity.