by Kathy Parker January 18, 2016
Fig. 1. Main concentration of northern elephant seals at Piedras Blancas. The trail, which is just beyond the viewing boardwalk, is visible in the upper right. (f/8, 1/1000, ISO640)
Imagine nearly 20,000 tons of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris), stretched cheek to jowl on a 10 km (6 mile) stretch of beach. That’s what I saw during the breeding season at Piedras Blancas, on the central California coast, early last year. Each adult male seal weighs up to 2270 kg (or 5000 lb) and reaches a length of roughly 4.5 m (15 ft). Females are smaller, at a weight of 770 kg (1700 lb) and length of 3.7 m (12 ft). Male seals begin arriving in November, when they fight viciously with one another to occupy and hold a territory. Females arrive in early January, giving birth to pups within days of hauling out on the beach. The experience overwhelmed my senses, as males used their resonant proboscis to bellow deeply and earn the right to breed with a harem, pups and females called constantly to maintain contact, and the stink of seal was ever-present. It was more entertaining than the best scripted movie—a photographer’s delight.
Fig 2-Males are identifiable from their more massive body and longer proboscis relative to females. (f/8, 1/800, ISO 640).
I visited this stretch of California coastline, located about half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in late January 2015. I had not seen this area in over 20 years. On my last visit, no beaches were occupied by elephant seals, even during the breeding season. At that time, the species was still slowly recovering from a close brush with extinction in the late 1800s and had only reclaimed nearby offshore islands. Much has changed in the intervening decades. Seals first appeared at Piedras Blancas in 1990; nearly 25 years later, close to 5000 pups were born into the local population of nearly 20,000 seals, making it the largest elephant seal rookery on the mainland California coast.
Fig. 3-Females give birth shortly after they arrive on the beach and remain there to nurse their pup until they depart close to a month later. (f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO640).
Fig. 4-Males arrive first to obtain prime beach real estate and a position high in the pecking order, which grants a dominant male sole breeding privileges with a harem of about 25 females. Females, too, must claim and defend space on the beach, as well as their position within a harem. (left: f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO800; right: f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO640)
Prior to my recent visit, I knew the seals were at this beach in large numbers, but I wasn’t sure how accessible they would be for photography. The setup surpassed my wildest dreams. I’ve photographed southern elephant seals in South Georgia and Antarctica where I had unlimited access to animals on the beach, and in many ways Piedras Blancas was superior to that. In the Antarctic, picking your way through a dense elephant seal colony is often impossible, and sometimes dangerous. At Piedras Blancas, although access to the breeding beach is restricted, a convenient and safe boardwalk runs along the beach for a mile or so, just above the sand line, with additional hiking trails above the beach beyond that. These permit relatively close photography, and the elevated position makes it easier to isolate animals for better photographs.
Fig. 5-6-Males determine the breeding hierarchy by bellowing with their resonant proboscis, bluffing charges against rival males, and if necessary, aggressive fights, which cause the scarring evident on the neck and proboscis of many adult males. (left and right: f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO640; below: f/6.3, 1/800, ISO640)
7-Females and pups immediately form a strong bond so that they can find each other on the crowded beach by their unique calls and smells. (f/7.1, 1/500, ISO1000).
Fig. 8-Once pups are weaned, females quickly return to the ocean to restock their energy reserves depleted by a month of nursing. Because weaning triggers estrous in females, the males are intent on detaining them to breed before females can reach the water. (f/9, 1/800, ISO640).
Fig. 9-Non-dominant males often lurk near the water’s edge, hoping to sneak in and mate with a female before being caught by the dominant male. (f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO640)
The best light for shooting is in the morning, because of the western exposure of the beach. I visited shortly after sunrise to capture wonderful golden light on the seals. One day of shooting was in overcast to drizzly conditions, which provided nice soft, diffuse light. All my shots were made with either a Nikon D800 or D700 camera body. I used 2 lenses, a Nikon 28-300 mm, typically at 200 or 300, and a Tamron 150-600 mm, set at 500 or 550 (occasionally 600 if I wanted to push it). I used ISO settings from 640 to 1000, which allowed me to use high enough shutter speeds (1/800-1/1000 sec) to capture the action while minimizing noise.
Figs. 10-11-After they are weaned, pups stay on the beach without their mother or food until late April, when starvation finally drives them to the sea to find food. Before they go, they hang out in groups of “weaners” and teach themselves to swim. As they lie on the exposed beach in the hot sun, they flip sand on their bodies to decrease heat absorption. (top: f/6, 1/640, ISO800; bottom: f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO640)
So if you’re interested in wildlife photography in a spot with fascinating animal behavior, set in a spectacular stretch of coastline with many other landscape and wildlife photography options, this is a place to consider. You won’t be disappointed!
Kathy Parker is a retired geography professor who lives in Athens, Georgia. She taught physical geography and biogeography courses for three decades and authored numerous journal articles and book chapters about animals and desert plants. Her travels have taken her to remote reaches of the globe, where she has photographed landscapes and wildlife to share with students of all ages through outreach and continuing education, and with a broader audience through regional exhibitions.
Address: Dr. Kathy Parker, Department of Geography, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602
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