Sunday, December 30, 2012

The elephant seals

Being the Christmas break and all, we decided on a whim that we should get out of L.A. for a day or two, and see some Californian sights we hadn't seen before. What to do? Those nearby snow-capped peaks were calling, but we don't have proper snow gear yet - this needed to be a road trip on a budget. We've been to San Diego several times, and also seen the Mojave Desert.

Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, has been on our wish list for a while so we decided to head north, mostly along the coast.

San Simeon is on the central Californian coast, pretty much half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. From either city, it takes about 4 - 4.5 hours to drive, so this sleepy little town actually does a mean business in tourism from both cities. We arrived in San Simeon on Thursday afternoon, and the hotel manager recommended seeing the castle the following morning, when it would be less windy on the hill. No problem, because we discovered that the same stretch of coast also happens to be home to an elephant seal rookery and we knew that the girls - the Faery in particular - would dig that.

We dumped our things in our little hotel room, rubbing hands with glee that the ocean was just a one-minute walk outside our door (the Faery was most anxious about the waves engulfing us overnight), and anticipated a cosy night in with the sound of the waves crashing in the background. After letting the girls burn off steam after such a long drive, we jumped back in the car and - five minutes later - were admiring the elephant seals.

By this time, the sun was getting low and the light was incredible. It hadn't even occurred to me until then that we'd be able to watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean - my mind is still a little skewed from growing up on the East Coast of Australia, where the sun rises over the Pacific. Anyhow, the light was incredible, so between my DSLR and iPhone, I took a ridiculous amount of photos.

In between happy-snapping, we giggled a great deal over these animals. I'll admit I knew next to nothing about elephant seals but after observing them as the sun went down, I made it my mission to read up on them that night, once the girls were tucked up in bed and sleeping (the cosy budget accommodation meant that watching TV in bed wasn't really an option if we wanted them to sleep).

At the rookery, there was a long (fenced-off) path for people to view the elephant seals down on the beach. I couldn't believe how many were on the sand, and there was a section with about a dozen mumma elephant seals and pups, sucking. The beach stretched as far as the eye could see, and dotted with elephant seals the entire length. The section closest to the viewing path seemed to be where the females and their young stayed, along with several males (seriously ugly dudes, by the way). In the distance, there were mostly males, often sparring and fighting. The sounds that emitted from these animals had to be heard to be believed. I thought that were doing a lot of belching and farting, but since learned that much of their vocalisations sound like one long series of massively reverberating burps.

In other words, comedy gold.

Once the sun had well and truly dipped behind the horizon, any lingering traces of warmth disappeared so we huddled back to the car. As we were leaving, the (large, round) moon began to peek over the hills on the other side of the road, to the east. It felt magical.

That night, as the girls slept, I devoured the pamphlets we'd collected and was somewhat in awe of what I learned about these huge creatures. In a nutshell:

- They spend 9-10 months of the year in the ocean, up in Alaska.

- From late November until March, they set up rookery on this particular stretch of Californian beach. They began coming about twenty years ago, and each year the numbers increase. Current stats show that around 17, 000 elephant seals come to this particular rookery.

- The males often weigh over two tonnes. The females clock in at around 640 kg.

- Starting from mid-December, the females give birth on the beach. The peak time for births is in January, but we spotted over at least a dozen newborn pups on the beach already (and incredibly adorable, at that).

- Giving birth only takes half an hour! Then the pups are weaned when they're only a month old. At that point, the females are ready to mate again. Because the elephant seals are fasting during this period of birthing and nursing, they lose a massive amount of weight. When they mate again, implantation delays until about May, when the females have bulked up again to sustain pregnancy.

- The mother seals spend a lot of time 'vocalising' to their pups, so that the pups will recognise their voices if they get separated.

- An alpha male essentially has a harem, and can impregnate up to fifty females in one season.

- During the peak season in January, the beach becomes so packed that the elephant seals are lying on top of one another, jostling for sand and packed in like sardines.

... and that's about all the facts that my brain was able to absorb, but it was rather interesting to read up on. You've got to love learning new things, right?

The next morning we went for a stroll on the beach by the hotel, lingered over breakfast, checked out, then headed to Hearst Castle. The smart thing for us would have been to reserve our tour tickets online beforehand, but being a spontaneous trip, we weren't that smart organised. A shame, because tours for the next three hours were sold out. There was no way we could hang around that long to wait, but rather than get all pissy and moaning about it, we simply made our way back for a second visit to the elephant seals. San Simeon is a long drive when there are two young kids strapped in the back, but I have a feeling we'll get back there one day. We fantasise about driving all the way up to the Pacific Northwest some day (friends to visit in both Portland and Seattle now), and if we do, San Simeon will be our first stop.

It's a beautiful corner of the world.

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