The Dead Seal Scrolls – Elephant Seals in California
drove down California Route 1 (the famous Pacific Coast Highway) from Monterey to Malibu yesterday. This coastline is amazingly beautiful, and huge stretches have been saved from the depredations of property developers (which is quite astonishing considering their political influence around here and what they’ve shamelessly done to other bits of the US shore). It was clear but extremely cold and windy. As you can see, it’s the type of place that photographers with more patience than me make a lot of money from (you’ll have to live with these quick snaps, I’m afraid).
Anyhow, so there I was, just me and a bunch of hokey radio stations, driving down hundreds of miles of something like the Garden Route (before the golf estate mafiosos got it) and Chapman’s Peak combined,
when I came round a bend and – holy smoke – there are hundreds of dead seals on that beach! The first thing that came to mind was the classic crane shot from Gone With the Wind, where the camera rises up to show us litter-loads of battle casualties from the US Civil War.
I stopped the car and had a closer look. Their bodies were kind-of saggy and flattened, and some had skin peeling off them, like rotten week-old Cape Buffalo carcases in Kruger.
Some were clearly not yet dead – they lifted their heads and made plaintive noises, then flopped down again. Others weakly struggled, their flippers unable to move their large bodies, merely succeeding in throwing sand in the air.
It took me half a minute to realise that there was a parking lot next to the beach. A few people were milling about ineffectually, seemingly led by three-odd middle aged ladies in blue bibs – the rescue team, I surmised. I pulled into the parking lot, eager to find what I thought might be an interesting news story. I then discovered that my take on the seals was utterly, completely, wrong.
The pinnipeds that I had seen from the road are Elephant Seals. Since 1990 or therabouts they have been coming to the beach to breed, socialise, and complete their annual moult (which, for females, happens this time of year). This involves lying on the beach, not feeding and hardly moving (inc. hardly breathing) for a whole month while their old fur falls out and new fur grows in – hence the ‘peeling skin’ look. Why they flip sand on to themselves is a bit of mystery – perhaps it’s to keep the sun off their sensitive skin or maybe “just to give themselves something to do”, according to one of the blue-bibbed Elephant Seal volunteers. They’re huge – the females in these photos are about double the size of Cali Sea Lions, I reckon.
For some, the moult was clearly more than a little itchy.
These beasts are called Elephant Seals because the males develop a big trunk-like nose as they get older. This time of year the males are all supposed to be feeding in the waters off Alaska – the guidebooks say they only arrive at this beach in June, when they barge each other around making noises like – well – hippos. One young male (6 years old, according to his small trunk) had arrived early, and floated about grunting, looking for other males to fight with and females to seduce.
He came up on to the beach while I was there, finding no fighting partners and eliciting no more than silent, unmoving disinterest from the girls (clearly the dumb kid in the back of the class who never looked over the marine mammal field guides closely enough. Need to read to pull the chicks, buddy!)
So, actually a happy scene. Yellow flowers, itchy seals, etc. etc., and a fun 20 min leg-stretching diversion for me.
I stayed overnight with Randy Olsen, a filmmaker (and ex evolutionary biologist) who makes movies about the failure of scientists to communicate. He’s into working with comedy actors to turn science and enviro education into entertainment, which is really refreshing to me.
I’m off now, driving back up the coast. I gotta make it all the way to San Francisco by midday tomorrow to catch my flight to Alaska…
From Malibu, from just near Cher’s giant hillside mansion, with love