Braided Streams

Reflections | Travels | Interests

Mirounga angustirostris

I’ve traveled all over the world, but this spring was my first visit to California, and to the west coast. I visited old friends in Los Angeles, then took the train up along the coast to Santa Barbara, where Connor was leading cycling trips for the spring. After a few days exploring the mountains and valleys and wildflowers of Buellton, we began our trip up the Pacific Coast Highway to bathe in the redwood forests and gaze from the seaside cliffs in Big Sur. While this trip would have been amazing enough, we bookended it with two stops at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal colony, and I just could not get enough.

As we approached the beach, we could see sand dancing in the air above the seals. We walked closer along a boardwalk to see the seals flinging sand over their backs, for protection from the sun, or to regulate their temperature. The beach was littered with seals. They would emerge from the water and flipper-pull their large bodies up the beach, their fat rippling down their water-glistening backs, then squeeze in between two seals that had already lined up neatly in a row. Sometimes, this caused a commotion, and they would raise their heads and growl and bark at the disturbance before settling in for a snore-filled pile of sleep. Some buried their noses in the sand; others continued sand-flicking over themselves and their nearest neighbors.

Almost all of them were in a state of “catastrophic molt,” shedding clumps of fur that looked like patches of old carpet. These seals were all female, returned to the beach from their short, post-pupping migration to spend a month growing new skin and hair: something they cannot do year-round, because they normally must conserve energy and warmth while spending their lives in the cold ocean. In different stages of sleek skin and old fur, they colored the beach with their muted, mottled bodies.

The elephant seals at Piedras Blancas were spotted by biologists in 1990; at that time, there were only about a dozen animals on the beach. The population grew to over one thousand by 1996, and today, there are over 15,000 seals in the colony. 15,000! 15,000 snorting, sparring, snuggling, sleepy seals. I watched them with such joy, until dusk arrived and we had to drive away.