Move over: Elephant seals take to the beaches

Hunted for their oil in the 19th century, elephant seals were thought to be extinct by the 1880s. But on Guadalupe, an island off the coast of Baja California, a colony of about 100 seals survived and multiplied. Today, they number between 120,000 and 160,000.

What weighs 3,000 pounds, hangs out at the beach with a gaggle of girlfriends, and makes noise like an idling motorcycle?

A northern elephant seal, of course. From December through March, thousands of these enormous, blubbery mammals with small fins and long snouts swim ashore to molt along the coasts of California and Mexico. Come fall, they return to the sea, diving sometimes a mile deep to forage for food. They have to fatten up for their winter sojourn at the beach, when they expend tremendous energy to breed and give birth.

The sight of these beached beasts, sprawled out on the sand, is arresting. "They look funny and they sound funny," is one preschooler's reaction to the elephant seals at central California's Ao Nuevo State Reserve, the world's largest colony of these unique-looking pinnipeds. Others describe the seals as "a cross between a bean bag and a Volkswagen Bug," "a lurching waterbed with the face of an elephant," or "giant slugs."

As for their character, the term "survivor" comes to mind. In the 19th century, elephant seals were hunted for their high-quality oil, 200 pounds of which could be obtained from a large, adult male. The oil was used for lamps, lubricating machinery, and making paint, soap, and candles. It was so popular that by the end of the 1880s, after 40 years of hunting, elephant seals were thought to be extinct.

But on Guadalupe Island, off the coast of Baja California, a colony of about 100 seals survived and multiplied. The offspring were protected by the Mexican government in 1922, and later by the United States. In 1972, hunting and harassment of seals was banned by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Scientists now calculate the population at between 120,000 and 160,000. They call this comeback the most remarkable of any marine mammal in North America.

On a cold day in February, some 1,700 of these unusual creatures gave an animated performance to a group of tourists at the 4,000-acre Ao Nuevo reserve. "Just wait," Grace Hansen, a volunteer docent told us as clouds rolled in. "The seals get quite lively, even rowdy, in bad weather."

Right she was. It would be hard to imagine better theater, even in culture-rich San Francisco, just 1-1/2 hours north. Protecting his harem of female seals, an alpha bull would arch his body, rear his head and bulbous nose, lunge toward his competition, and let out a drumlike noise, loud enough to be heard a mile away. Once he'd won the tussle, he'd cuddle up to his mate of the hour, gently putting his "arm" around her.

Minutes later, the action would repeat itself. Nearby, other female cows nursed their "weaners" or "super-weaners" - if the babies were getting milk from two mothers. Slightly older "pups" ventured into tiny puddles, beginning to build swimming skills for the big plunge into shark-infested waters. They take this precarious plunge alone, months after mom and dad have left. Mom's return to the ocean is especially urgent as she loses half her body weight while nursing.

Speed is not an attribute one typically associates with elephant seals out of the water. But all that blubber is deceptive. They move an average of 20 feet in five seconds, with males throwing their weight around at twice that speed. Tourists are warned to stay 25 feet away, even when the seals appear oblivious to their presence. "Females and pups bite," Ms. Hansen explains, "and the males will simply squash you."

This has scientists and naturalists wondering: As the elephant-seal population continues to grow, can man and beast share some of America's most popular beaches? For now, all they can hope for is that man, historically the elephant seals' greatest enemy, will learn to appreciate how far these animals have come, how deliberately they live, and how determined they are to survive.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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