The Great Molting Spot

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I could watch the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal LiveCam all day, although the lack of audio is disappointing. The bulls’ guttural barking and bellowing and harrumphing as they slam their blubbery chests into each other and slinky-roll across the sand are calls of the wild that make your skin prickle. I tried to capture the sound on my iPhone when we came upon them last summer north of San Simeon, but all I got was the drone of the wind. Fortunately, Friends of the Elephant Seals website features several high-quality videos with audio, so you can get the idea.

We had spent a morning in late June walking around the wonderland of Hearst Castle, and were still under the spell of its opulence when we headed north on Highway 1 and came upon the rookery south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. The sight of these enormous and powerful mammals in various states of repose was the perfect antidote to all that glitz and gilt. The beach was covered with adult males who had come in for their annual molt. Whereas humans continually slough off dead skin cells and grow new ones, elephant seals grow a new layer in just a few weeks a year during the summer months. Because the process requires circulating blood outside the blubber layer, they come ashore to wallow in the sand, where the loss of body heat is much less than would occur in the ocean. When their coat is restored to a glossy black, they swim out to sea.

A docent explained that we were looking at one of the fasting-growing colonies of elephant seals on the Central California coast. Since one morning in November 1990 when a few seals came ashore, the colony has grown to about 16,000. As word of the colony spread, people flocked to gape at, and sometimes stalk, the lumbering beasts, which created a dangerous situation for both seals and humans.

A few years ago, the state realigned the Cabrillo Highway and created a safe viewing platform that provides an excellent vista to the confabulating creatures below. Even so, there are those jerks who think the rules don’t apply to them. Our docent was muttering about a guy who that morning had tried to sneak down to the beach to get a closer look and then got up in her face when she warned him to not to. I say, let him go and do some chest bumps. My money is on the bulls.

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