To observe elephant seals in mating season is to experience the life cycle in its most visceral form.
On my birthday, I made a trip to Año Nuevo State Park to see what all the fuss was about. Año Nuevo is about 23 miles north of Santa Cruz, CA, off of that gorgeous coastal highway, Route 1. While the park also houses the remains of a dairy farm and an abandoned Psycho-esque hotel, its main attraction is its elephant seal colony. Since 1955, when the first male was spotted on the peninsula, Año Nuevo’s elephant seal population has been steadily increasing. On January 26th, when I visited, scientists on site counted 2351 animals – 402 males, 1257 females, 683 pups (less than a month old), and nine “weaners” (more than a month old and done nursing but not yet ready to move into the sea).
During mating season, which is in full swing right now, visitors must take a docent-led tour out to the beaches where the elephant seals spend their time. My group walked along the cliffs of the park and through the classic California chapparal with eyes intently focused on the ocean, hoping to catch a glimpse of a swimming elephant seal. We did, because it turns out that the 6000 pound males are hard to miss when they’re in the water – even from a distance. What we didn’t realize is that we needn’t be looking so hard; we were about to walk right within feet of the lounging creatures as we approached the sand dunes where the majority of the colony was “hauled out.”
Arriving at the elephant seal colony is a shock to the senses. For starters, there’s the noise. A constant cacophony of elephant seal vocalizations rings in the air. These sounds vary from frog-like croaking to child-like screams to noises that would best be described as “bleating” or “crowing.” The unique vocalizations of each individual help moms and pups identify each other in the sea of blubber scattered across the beach. (You can listen to recordings of them here). Accompanying the elephant seal noises are myriad bird noises. Sea gulls hover everywhere, waiting to scoop up some tasty placenta mere moments after a pup is birthed. Add in the backing vocals of the pounding surf, and you’ve got a veritable punk rock concert of the natural variety.
The visual spectacle of the crowded beaches is just as overwhelming. The animals are everywhere, and in many cases, they are piled on top of each other. These are not small creatures by any stretch of the imagination. Males, or “bulls,” as they are called, can be up to sixteen feet long and weigh over 6000 pounds. Females are smaller, growing to lengths of twelve feet and weights of up to 2000 pounds; however, there are far more of them, and in some spots they literally blanket the sand. This light brown sea of flesh is regularly punctuated by the black fur of the pups, who have yet to shed their dark coats for the silver ones they will grow once they are weaned.
It’s not just the quantity and size of the elephant seals that is striking; it’s their activities. They are living the life cycle, distilled to its bare essence. In the time that you’re watching the show, you may see a birth or a death. You will most certainly see lots of sex, sleeping, fighting, and feeding. Females have come ashore to birth their pups – a process which apparently happens in the span of just a few minutes. The roughly seventy-five pound pup that is born will nurse for twenty-nine days before his food supply is cut off. During that time, the fifty-percent milkfat liquid he consumes will enable him to grow from seventy-five pounds to 250 or 350 pounds in less than a month. Meanwhile, his mother is fasting; living off of the substantial blubber supply she accumulated during the summer and fall.
At the same time that this part of the life cycle is playing itself out, males are competing for dominance and the associated privilege of mating with as many females as possible. The enormous bulls fight with each other to establish alpha-male status and access to the harems that accompany that position. Male elephant seals have gigantic (and ugly) proboscises that they wave around in the air. These giant nose-like features facilitate the creation of their unique sounds. They also allow them to “rebreathe” moisture that they exhale – an efficiency necessary to survive their own water and food fasting period on land. Males can be seen mounting females all over the beach, and in their excitement to do so, they crush (and sometimes kill) pups with alarming frequency.
It is quite likely that the females – who just gave birth, mind you – will be pregnant again before they leave the beach. If not, they will certainly be impregnated within the first few days of moving back into the water, as they set off into the sea to feed on fish, sharks, octopi, rays, and skates. The females experience an extra-uterine pregnancy for the first several months as the fertilized egg waits until the mother has regained enough strength from her fasting, birthing, and nursing experience before it implants. Eleven months later, she will be back on this same beach, doing it all over again.
What a life, right?
At one point during my tour, the docent said, “I just always have to wonder what they are thinking.” Of course, it’s likely that they aren’t thinking anything. We have no reason to believe that elephant seals have a self-aware consciousness that allows them to think in a way that we would consider worthy of that verb. The degree to which their behavior is dictated by instinct is obvious; they are living the life cycle, stripped down to its bare bones. Feed, mate, birth, nurse, repeat. I’m not sure there’s any room for reflection – much less the creation of a personal narrative – in there, although it’s amusing to think about what that narrative might be like.
As I wandered amongst these creatures on my birthday, a day which I took to celebrate my gratitude for the life of wonder, exploration, creativity and connection that I get to lead, I couldn’t help but be extra thankful for my freedom from the stripped-down life cycle of the elephant seals. I can feed whenever I want to, on just about whatever I want to – or choose to skip meals at will. I can mate or not as I see fit, and have the good fortune of being able to participate in that activity without experiencing its consequences. I have elected not to experience pregnancy, birthing, nursing, or weaning, and my life is plenty full without them. I am not a part of a harem, and sexual dimorphism in my species is practically non-existent in comparison with the division experienced by elephant seals. Instead, I enjoy relative equality with other members of my species, regardless of their sex, size, or territorial acquisitions.
And I owe all of this to my big brain, this organ that has folded over and over on itself over the course of millennia to create something that produces what we have come to call consciousness.
Yes, this consciousness can torture me. But on days like this, it feels like the best gift in the world.