We’ve spent a lot of time on the Oregon Coast as volunteers for US Fish & Wildlife, and although the entire coast is amazing, our favorite place is on an overlook of a large reef and small island called Shell Island. Here, we set up our US F&W Swarvoski spotting scopes to give visitors a close up view of the Harbor Seals, California and Steller Sea Lions, and the amazing Elephant Seal. The Northern Elephant Seal has an amazing history – almost complete wiped out in the late 1800s for the oil from their blubber, they’ve made a monumental comeback and probably number around 200,000 today. While they spend most of their lives far offshore, their return to land for mating, birthing, and molting takes place in the warmer, more temperate areas of Southern California and so their presence here is both a bit unusual, and for the females, often tragic.
These are huge animals; males can be 15’ long and weigh 5000 pounds, while the females are a diminutive 10’ long and 1500 pounds. Like other seals and Sea Lions they give birth once a year, but unlike others, they do it in mid-winter. And therein lies the problem.
We’re accustomed to seeing three or four males on the sandy part of Shell Island; after all, it’s on their normal migration route, and like some Gray Whales, they seem to decide they’ve gone far enough and stay here. But we were surprised one day a week ago when we arrived to see nearly a dozen females on the island. And while they’re all pretty rotund, these ladies were really large. We wondered what was going on, especially after our resident pair of adult Bald Eagles showed up and sat on top of the island’s highest rock, as if waiting for something to happen.
And then it did – one of the females became visibly agitated, the eagles became airborne, and a pup and afterbirth came shooting out of the female. The mother quickly pulled the pup to her while the eagles landed for their protein lunch, and the mother and pup, heads together, rested. After a while, mom moved the pup to her side and rolled over a bit to let it have its first meal. The next day, activity continued with another pup being born. In this image, the pup’s head is visible near the front of the mother. Her head is covered with blood from the afterbirth. The pup was adorable, and the observation deck quickly filled with people waiting to get a close up view. My camera’s telephoto lens doesn’t show the pup very well, but it was clearly visible through the spotting scopes. So that you can see what the pup looks like, here’s an image off the internet. When born, the pup is a wrinkled, fuzzy, and between 50-80 pounds. They’ll quickly grow, gaining ten pounds a day from their mother’s milk, which is the consistency of pudding. At the end of a month, they’ll weigh around 300 pounds except for those who are able to feed from multiple mothers; known as “super weaners” - they can reach 600 pounds.
Why do they grow so fat so quickly? Well, there’s a reason – unlike their relative the Harbor Seal, they’re born without knowing how to swim or fish. And the adults abandon them on the beach after they’re weaned and leave them to figure things out. So all the fat they’ve put on in that first month sustains them for the next few months while they figure out life in the ocean. And that brings us to the sad part of this story.
Simpson Reef and Shell Island are the northernmost breeding location for the Northern Elephant Seal. Unlike the California beaches, here the water is colder, the tides are higher, and the winter storms fierce. When we left the mothers and pups on the weekend there was a strong storm forecast later in the week. The storm arrived, along with high tides, a strong surge that raised the water even higher, and 25-30 foot waves. This is what the island looked like before the storm:
All of the seals and sea lions have dispersed, and sadly, the pups have been washed away. We knew that the survival rate for Elephant Seal pups was very low here, but having witnessed the females struggle and then give birth, and see the pups in their first days, it was tough to see how cruel nature can be. Perhaps we’ll see more births this year and with luck the seas will stay calm, but it’s not likely. On the plus side, the Elephant Seal population continues to thrive thanks to the large numbers that breed and birth on the California beaches.
That’s it for now – thanks for reading!