In Año Nuevo State Park, on California’s Central Coast, elephant seal pups call to their mothers. Their bray is a high-pitched staccato scream, something between the cry of a human toddler and the squawk of a bird. The pups are newly weaned, but seemingly unhappy about it.
Thousands of adult elephant seals return to Año Nuevo in late fall after spending months at sea, where they deep dive for fish, crabs, squid, and even small sharks. Giant males, which possess iconic trunk-like snouts and are nicknamed “bruisers,” establish territories where land meets the sea. Though many are close to 4,500 pounds, they’re rarely combative with each other. The most impressive males have the best chances of attracting mates, of course: Often, smaller males retreat inland without a fight.
By January, females that mated the previous year are pupping. For one month, they nurse, transferring nearly half of their body weight to their young. Then, in February, pups are weaned off their mother’s milk. Called “weaners,” these juveniles squabble among each other and inch awkwardly across the sand—having neither rotational hips nor propped up flippers, they lack the fluidity of their sea lion neighbors. Their mothers have already returned to sea and their feeding grounds. But a few adult males remain and try to sleep through the commotion.
Happy International Day of the Seal, everyone!
📷: Sukee Bennett