The good news about my unemployable circumstances is my liberated time. For most of my adult years unrestricted time was an illusive luxury. Between parenting, career building, and life maintenance, my personal quality time was like a failed reduction sauce of limited moments with the evening news and occasional bubble baths.
Yesterday, with three hours of my unhampered time, I donned my royal blue jacket and hat that bear the official Friends of the Elephant Seal (FES) logo, and I stood on the rocky Piedras Blancas bluffs–a place located at the southern end of California’s Big Sur on Highway 1.
About a dozen sub-adult northern elephant seal males languished on the beach below. “Good morning,” I greeted a German family snapping photos of the one-plus-ton beasts. Warily they turned in my direction. Their three boys were not as fluent in English as the parents, but when I reached in my pocket and retrieved a piece of elephant seal fur, language lost its importance.
With one finger, the oldest boy gingerly touched the brown Velcro-like fur. “Go ahead, you can hold it,” I encouraged.
“These seals I’ve not seen before,” the mother said in accented and careful English, as she looked at my name tag identifying me as a guide or docent for this natural and stunning marine locale.
“You probably haven’t,” I began. “What you are viewing is the northern elephant seal and you will only find them on the west coast of the Pacific Ocean.”
“Are they here all the time?” her husband asked as the three boys made closer exam of the odd piece of fur.
“No. The seals below us are males who migrated from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska just so they could lie on this beach and lose all their fur and then grow new fur before they make their 2500 mile swim back to the Aleutian Islands.” From my side tote, I pulled a laminated card that illustrates the seals’ migration route from California to Alaska. “This molting process takes about four weeks. So, they’ll return to Alaska and we won’t see them on this beach again until late Fall or early Winter.”
“They make this migration again?” asked the father, as people who stood nearby gathered around as I offered more information about the elephant seals.
“The ‘babies’—which are now young juveniles who hunt and swim on their own– are out to sea,” I gently explained as I went back into my side tote and brought out the FES quarterly newsletter that includes a calendar, of sorts, that explains the elephant seals’ visit to Piedras Blancas. As I handed them to the growing crowd, I continued, “Most of what is on the beach today are sub-adult and adult males.”
“But I came to see the babies,” she insisted.
“If you come back here during the early winter months, we’ll have plenty of newborn elephant seal pups on the beach. Usually, our first pup is born just before Christmas, with the bulk of births taking place during January.”
Now a multigenerational family from India joined the group encircling me with the sample of fur being passed around like show and tell time from my grade school years. “But why do they just lay on the beach?” asked the man who pushed a wheel chair-bound woman dressed in traditional Indian attire.
“When the seals are on land they fast. So besides resting from a 2500 mile swim that took about 30 days to complete, adjusting to gravity again, and because they will not eat, there will be a lot of energy conservation. Besides,” I joked, “it makes for a nice California vacation–you know, hang out on the beach, take a little dip in the water every once in a while, and grow shiny new fur.”
Just about everyone chuckled from that remark.
“You mean they don’t go out at night and eat, at all?” he pressed.
“That’s right,” I agreed. “As a matter of fact, when the mature males are here–for about 90 days during the winter months when pups are born and the breeding begins– they don’t eat at all.”
Rapid-fire questions zinged and zapped like a quiz show. I answered about 99 percent of them. In fact, I answered questions for over 100 people during my three hours on the bluffs.
The northern elephant seal rookery at Piedras Blancas is a must see for anyone traveling north or south on Highway 1 between Monterey and Morro Bay, Ca. These creatures survived our near-extinction of their species (for oil), spend most of their lives at sea, and when they are on land, Piedras Blancas is the most accessible for viewing. Because of the site’s unique marine environment, each volunteer docent must complete what I affectionately call E-Seal U—or more accurately, a northern elephant seal crash course taught by experts along with a healthy dose of marine ecosystem and environmental subject matter. For me, it opened a door to a most fascinating world that I love to daily explore.
But what I love most, besides standing in ocean breezes (and sometimes gale force winds) and spending my unrestricted time with the fascinating and once near-extinct northern elephant seal, the nearby harbor seals, California sea lions and occasional California sea otters diving for crabs and clams, are the times when visiting Iranians, Koreans, Israelis, Africans, East Europeans and just about anyone from anyplace in the world, migrate to this special place to learn more about the natural world around us and I get to serve as an unofficial American ambassador that demonstrates respect for our planet and the people near me.
It’s a tiny footprint I hope to leave behind while I learn to savor my newly-liberated time.
Adult male northern elephant seal. Photo by C. Coimbra
Me (in blue jacket and hat) , surrounded by visitors at Piedras Blancas. Photo by C. Chesney
“Baby” or weaner northern elephant seal. Photo by C. Coimbra