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Entries in Northern Elephant Seal (3)

Saturday
Feb062010

Northern Elephant Seals, California

I have always been fascinated  of Elephant Seals and welcome any opportunity to observe them in their natural habitat.  This is the second time I have visited this seal haul out and as with other visits I wasn’t disappointed.  The first visit was in January when the seals were well into their breeding cycle and the bull seals were fighting other rival bull seals for mating rights.  During this time the haul out area was in constant flux with seals everywhere doing seal things. 

LEFT: Northern Elephant Seals practice fighting while juvenile look on carefully.

This visit was in early November and there wasn’t nearly as much “action” as during the breeding season.  Females were lolling about catching the rays and sleep appeared to be high on the agenda of many of the seals.  Although there was some fighting, most of the bulls were adolescent males under 5 years of age gaining their training teeth; the season was too early for any “real” fighting to take place as the Alpha males had yet to visit the haul out to claim mating privileges.

LEFT:  Female Northern Elephant Seals sleep in early morning sun.

I arrived on site just after dusk and did a quick reconnoiter of the site to determine the best shooting positions and angles for the following morning.  The following day was an early wake up as I wanted to be on-site and ready to shoot as the first rays broke the horizon.  I always like spending time with animals in the early morning; the air is usually crisp and the animals are interesting to watch as they transition from sleeping to being more active.  Also, the early morning usually provides ideal photographic opportunities with soft golden light. 

 LEFT:  Adolescent Northern Elephant Seal scratches whiskers.

Seals, especially females and pups, seem to engender what most people fall in love with; the big round eyes and the slight tilt of the head all suggest a loveable and benign creature that just beckons to be petted.  Indeed, there has been more than one incidence of well-meaning people collecting seal pups and taking them home in backpacks!  What these people were thinking at the time is beyond me; a seal pup does not eat puppy dog food!  However, like any wild creature seals deserve respect.  If you approach too closely they will try and bite you, and I’ve observed instances when a seal has chased a person at an alarming fast rate across the beach.  Therefore, when photographing seals, especially elephant seals that do not tolerate closeness, it’s normally a good idea to use a longer focal length lens such as a 300mm or 500mm lens. 

GENERAL INFORMATION

Elephant seals take their name from the large proboscis of the adult males (bulls), which resembles an elephant's trunk.  The bull's proboscis is used in producing extraordinarily loud roaring noises, especially during the mating season. More importantly, the nose acts as a sort of rebreather, filled with cavities designed to reabsorb moisture from the animal’s exhalations. This is important during the mating season when the male seals rarely leave the beach to feed and therefore must conserve body moisture, as they have no incoming source of water.

The seals can spend upwards of 80 percent of their lives in the ocean and can hold their breath longer than 120 minutes – well over any other marine mammal (excluding whales). The depth these seals dive to is very impressive and seals have been recorded at 2000 feet searching for their favorite prey which is stingray, octopus, squid, small sharks, eels, and in the southern ocean, penguins.  While excellent swimmers, elephant seals are no slouch on land and can move faster than the average person for short distances.

Check out the Northern Elephant Seals video.



Thursday
Feb052009

Northern Elephant Seals, California

 

During the afternoon after photographing Sea Otters at Moss Landing we made the 2 hour drive south to Piedras Blancas to photograph the Elephant Seals. It was hoped to capture the seals in the later afternoon "golden light", however the seal colony is not ideally positioned to take full advantage of the afternoon light. Despite this, it was a productive afternoon as the male bulls were particularly active in securing their territories from rival males. 

As evening approached the marine layer (sea fog) preceeding a westerly frontal change slowly made its way toward shore. The mist was chilled the atmosphere several degrees cooler as it came closer to shore and quickly enveloped several rocky outcrops offshore. It soon became apparent why the California coast has many lighthouses and fog horn that sound continually. Any mariner would have a difficult time in securing passage in such foggy conditions. By night fall the fog had moved slightly inland a visibility driving back to Moss Landing was only a few meters at the most.

I am amazed at the diversity of habitats and wildlife that occur in northern California. Usually marine mammals breed on offshore islands

away from urban coastal development, however, California authorities have been determined to protect vital breeding areas for certain mammals allowing them full reign of prime coastal areas.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday
Jan272009

Northern Elephant Seals, California

An early departure at 0330 set us up for a long haul south to Piedras Blancas to photograph northern elephant seals breeding on a small section of coastline at San Simeon. The drive south was very picturesque after night turned to day. The coastal road meandered along the precipitous cliffs adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. Many of the road sections lacked guard rails and care was needed to negotiate several sharp turns.

The elephant seals were well worth the 4 hour drive one way south from San Francisco. Unfortunately, we did not make our location before sunrise, therefore the "golden hour" had passed. The sandy beach was littered with approximate 15o animals. Female seals were basking in the morning sun with several suckling youngsters. Darting between the seals were California ground squirrels. These animals feed upon seeds within vegetation beside the rockery and are exceptionally cute.

Each Harem was controlled by a bull seal who kept careful a careful eye on his breeding stock ensuring that any rival male did not sneak into his area and breed, without appropriate authorization, with one of his females. It was interesting to observe rival males swimming slowing offshore up and down the wave break waiting for their chance to creep ashore (can seals creep) to try his luck! Several arguments developments between males and a loud "thump" could be heard as the alpha male pounded any intruder. Blood is often drawn and fights can last several minutes until the would be suitor is either intimated to retreat or is injured.
I found comprising shots difficult. The animals are large and often congregated together; obtaining a portrait shot is almost impossible. In addition, in my opinion, the light was far too harsh for pretty images. I'm hoping to return to this location for better images in the not too distant future.

The image above shows the aggression that male bull elephant seals can show to rivals. Although blood can be seen, the very thick fatty layer present on all seals offrs exceptionally good protection.