Friday, December 19, 2008

Elephant seal adventures

Elephant Seals. Weird, very weird.

I mean, really, now--WHAT is with the schnozz?

We live in a fantastical world. Here in the Bay Area there are a couple of places where the elephant seals like to vacation, and one of them happens to be the beach at Ano Nuevo State Reserve. Actually it doesn't just "happen." These Northern Elephant Seals-- which range all the way north to Alaska's Aleutian Islands down to Morro Bay and Piedras Blancas by Hearst Castle, which is where we saw them a couple of years ago-- were attracted to the area, which was made into a reserve to help give the flagging population of elephant seals a place to recover their numbers.

You can make reservations for tours in the winter months when thousands of elephantine tourists descend on the beach (the seals, not the humans). The tours take place rain or shine, we were told, and involve hiking along uneven path. It was a little rainy as we set out, but after fortifying ourselves with some Chex mix and sandwiches, we were anxious to set out. In the windswept grey air, you could hear the full-bellied, distinctive croaking of a large mammal, and we wanted to get out to the beaches.

As we walked along, the weather just got better and better -- the Bay Area is really just spectacular some times.

The tour program is thorough and carefully guided-- I guess no one wants to see a tourist trampled by a 16 foot high, 6000 pound critter that can clock a landspeed of 25 mph. Rangers explain about the local ecology and the fauna as well as the seals themselves, so the whole trip, which takes about three hours total, is highly informative, not just unusual.

And it is extraordinarily unusual. It's a close-up view of one of the oddest mammals in the world, and a chance to see them, not in an aquarium or a cage, but hanging out on their favorite beach.

Many of them work those three ton bodies somehow up the dunes, along the paths and into the brush, so you have to be careful as you tromp around -- the next bush might just be hiding a cranky elephant seal-- or a really cute one...

And then there's the "slugging" around on the beach in a manner not unlike Jabba the Hutt.

"They're tired," said one of our guides helpfully, "they've just swum in from Alaska."

We look at them a little dubiously, but with a touch more respect. "I just swam in from Alaska, and, boy, is my nose tired...hahahahahahah...."

Yes. Well. Anyway.

That dark, slug-looking thing is a newly-born pup, believe it or not, getting some rest flopped next to his mother. He's exhausted too -- well you know what it's like when you travel from Alaska in coach class.

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