Elephant Seals at San Simeon

After seeing the Hearst Castle today the next stop was the Piedras Blancas rookery at San Simeon to see elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris). I was impressed.

Elephant seals on the beach.

Elephant seals on the beach.

The size of the male elephant seals surprised me. I expected them to be big, but I didn’t realize they were so large. They were also hideously ugly, in a fascinating sort of way. The blubbery creatures appeared to be very serene (that’s a nice way of saying they looked fat and lazy).

A very relaxed elephant seal.

A very relaxed and happy elephant seal.

Many of the seals appeared to be dead. They didn’t move at all for long periods of time. But they were not dead. From time to time one would open his mouth and bark. The sound was a low rumble. I noticed that almost every tourist hearing the sound for the first time laughed. It’s the sort of sound that produces a smile. You could think of it like a slow idling Harley Davidson motorcycle (or if you’re less refined you could make burp or fart comparisons).

A barking seal.

A barking seal.

Another occasional movement was made to scratch an itch. A flipper would be raised to clumsily swat at a cheek.

A seal with an itch.

A seal with an itch.

One of the most impressive movements involved flipping sand. A seal would expertly toss sand with a flipper. The sand would rain down along the length of the seal’s body, providing thorough coverage. I think it was to displace the flies that landed on the seal. I noticed that the bigger the seal the better the accuracy of the sand toss, it appears to be a skill refined with age.

Sand flipping.

Sand flipping.

At times a seal would move suddenly in a  burst of movement. These were quick movements that only lasted about 5 seconds. The seal would lift his head and wriggle around. Many of the seals appeared to be smiling or grimacing. Most of the seals would collapse after moving, appearing to be completely exhausted by the effort.

A burst of movement.

A burst of movement.

I began to suspect that elephant seals are actually alien moles.

A alien mole?

An alien mole?

These creatures are just absurd. I enjoyed glancing at the faces of the people watching the seals. Most people smiled frequently. It’s difficult to watch elephant seals and respond with indifference.

How can you watch one of these and not smile?

How can you watch one of these and not smile?

When one seal would bump into another or exchange stares a quick competition would break out. After making some noise they would halfheartedly fight. But the fights were not prolonged or very spirited. When these moments are frozen in photos it appears the seals are singing.

Sweet harmony.

Sweet harmony.

The fighting was minimal because females were not present. The males weren’t particularly concerned about looking impressive–it was almost all bark and no bite.

Elephant seals are grotesquely fascinating. If you have a chance to see them I recommend that you seize it–I bet you’ll smile.

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