Slumbering Giants – Northern Elephant Seals of Point Reyes

The Elephant Seals of Point Reyes

Strolling into one of the numerous beaches near Point Reyes, I see yellow tapes quarantining large patches of beach from the visitors. A casual appraisal of the seashore reveals a number of hunky mounds on the beach sand. These turn out to be humongous Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris). All of them are fast asleep, ignoring but not oblivious of the crowd milling around them shouting, pointing, and making a fuss about a few napping hummocks of blubber.

Quarantined - tapes are set up to ensure that the Northern Elephant Seals enjoy their privacy and space
Quarantined – tapes are set up to ensure that the Northern Elephant Seals enjoy their privacy and space

I chat up the guard who is stationed on the beach to ensure that the animals are not disturbed. He tells me that in low light people tend to accidentally wander close to these great beasts mistaking them for beach dunes. Northern Elephant Seals are irritable, deceptively quick despite their enormous heft, and can cause significant harm with their bite. Adult males can grow up to four metres (14 feet) long and weigh in excess of two tons. These are not animals to be messed with.

Having rolled over, this male Northern Elephant Seal reveals an underside scarred from numerous mating battles, hunts, and other close scrapes
Having rolled over, this male Northern Elephant Seal reveals an underside scarred from numerous mating battles, hunts, and other close scrapes

Only the males of the species have the trunk-like proboscis, which, along with their size, earns them their name. I look around but cannot spot any females. The mating season begins in December and polygny is the rule. It goes on for a few weeks when the stronger males battle each other, establish their supremacy, and mate with as many females as they can seduce. Apparently, here on Point Reyes, the mating season had just concluded and the pregnant females have headed out to sea. That probably explains the gentlemen-only appearance of this crowd and their state of extreme (sexual?) exhaustion.

Snooze
I feel so sleepy when I watch their deep slumber

Northern Elephant Seals were hunted perilously close to extinction in the 19th century, but they have bounced back thanks to conservation efforts initiated first in Mexico. However, since the extant population of these pinnipeds sprang back from a very small seed population through excessive inbreeding, they are vulnerable to any potential extinction event that could be triggered by disease or extreme environmental or climatic variations.

Can someone please scratch my belly?
Can someone please scratch my belly?

Watching these massive mammals snoozing on the shore has a contagious effect on my own wakefulness. I wouldn’t snub the Northern Elephant Seals for dozing around all day, the females having left the shore. As a matter of fact, I too tend to do that when the missus is not home.

Enough said. I’m off for a nap.

Posted from Point Reyes Station, California, United States.

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