Where seals and humans meet

SUN JOURNAL

Nature: Northern elephant seals mate in California's Ano Nuevo State Reserve -- as herds of people watch.

April 29, 1999|By ROSEMARY ARMAO | ROSEMARY ARMAO,SUN STAFF

PESCADERO, Calif. -- Every year in December, thousands of giant bulbous creatures swim ashore at a state park 55 miles south of San Francisco to answer the most primitive of animal urges. And every year, thousands of human voyeurs clamor to watch.

Since 1972, Northern elephant seals have turned Ano Nuevo State Reserve's windy and rock-littered Pacific shore into the Niagara Falls of sealdom. In a grand-scale animal orgy that lasts three months, they mate, give birth and nurse their young.

The rangers at Ano Nuevo have turned this live version of a Discovery Channel episode into a steady source of revenue by selling tickets.

Only 40,000 people a year are admitted to the park, though double that number are willing to pay the $4 plus parking. Weekends in February are booked months in advance, and the staff of nine rangers has trained a squadron of 220 volunteer docents to answer the flood of probing, often indelicate questions, asked especially by curious children.

"Why do they come on the beach?" "What are they doing there?" "How many times?"

"See, you don't have to go to Africa to see wild, insane animal behavior," supervising ranger Gary Strachan explains.

Honeymoon site

Since 1972, Northern elephant seals have favored Ano Nuevo State Reserve's shore as a honeymoon site.

"They think they're on an island," Strachan says -- safe from humans and grizzly bears, their traditional enemies.

Males -- blubbery mountains 16 feet long and 2.5 tons big -- wham into each other like lusty biting locomotives for the duties and privileges involved in keeping harems of females. The latter -- about 10 feet long and 1.25 tons -- respond by flipping sand in their suitors' faces and howling.

Babies trying to nurse from mothers distracted by the marathon mating sometimes are trampled to death or swept away by stormy surf. Storms whipped up by El Nino last year were particularly cruel to the babes.

Pups able to suck up enough of their mothers' fat-laced milk in a month balloon to 350 pounds, then roll away from the fray and nap on a sand dune like swollen leeches. They remain a month after their parents, figuring out how to paddle and dive, before at the end of April they, too, take off for deep waters.

The sound of bloody battling among the alpha males, the howls of manic mating and yelps of lost babies produce an unimaginable other-worldly drone.

The park has put "elephant seal vocalizations" on its Web site. At www.anonuevo.org you can hear "Harem" or "Two Males" or "Mom and her pup" or "Bull with frogs in background," but not the mesmerizing guttural symphony of all of that at once coming from the throats of 4,000 "overstuffed caterpillars" -- Wildlife magazine's description of the seals' physique.

Common experience

For all of the scene's bizarreness, Ano Nuevo visitors seem struck mostly by the familiarity of it all:

Undersized, juvenile or outmatched males who can't trumpet loudly enough or bite hard enough to win any mates are "losers" in the lexicon of the park docents. That always gets a laugh.

"Ah, my dates," a woman will joke about the inert blobs stretched dejectedly on a dune, far from the action. "You can almost see the polyester suits and hang-dog expressions, can't you?"

Two teen-aged boys nod knowingly as they watch a female seal welcome the advances of a male seal -- until a bigger male shows up, his bulky "trunk" like so much balled-up pizza dough, jiggling over his face. "Figures," one says, with a shrug.

Teen girls watching two males trumpeting and posturing in front of a group of female seals nod knowingly as well.

Male visitors are amazed by this statistic from their seal guide: A bull elephant's penis is 3 feet long with a bone down the middle that makes possible his indefatigable pairings.

Women visitors are amazed by this: Female seals, busy with sex, birthing and nursing, go as long as two months without eating and lose up to 50 percent of their body weight.

"I still am carrying around the weight from my last kid," they tell each other.

Human interest in the seals was not always so benign. Indians ate them. White hunters in the 1800s slaughtered the animals in huge numbers for the rich oil that could be rendered from their bodies. By 1892, only a small colony of fewer than 1,000 was left, off the coast of Baja California.

In the 1920s, when a few elephant seals again began appearing in Southern California waters, the U.S. government put them under protection.

Helped by their prodigious sexual appetites, they have multiplied and extended their range from Baja to Washington state. Scientists estimate a thriving census of 160,000, and Strachan says the seals are beginning to haul up out of the sea onto other, private beaches along California's western edge.

Cash and protection

Their mass orgies are instant tourist attractions, and other guided-tour programs like the one at Ano Nuevo probably will spring up in the next few years.

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