Barking, bleating, and bared teeth increase this month along the Pacific Coast Highway in San Simeon as mature male elephant seals at Piedras Blancas beach emerge from the ocean to spar for rights to the water and female counterparts in their annual pre-breeding ritual. Travelers can get an eyeful -- and earful -- of the sea-dwelling mammals' machismo as they take to the cove for the final time this year before swimming back to open waters, where they will stay til the spring.
Located just north of Hearst Castle, Piedras Blancas is estimated to be home to more than 17,000 elephant seals who arrive at the rookery at year's end to breed and give birth. Juvenile males arrive in October and spend the month practicing their fighting techniques in anticipation of the adult males' arrival in November, though they tend to be no match for the adults, who can weigh as much as 5,000 pounds. Once juveniles have moved on to other sand, accepting defeat sometimes before a battle even breaks out, the adult males are left to war with each other, rearing back, slamming their bodies, and squalling for dominance, often all day long.
While the conflicts provide autumnal visitors an up-close-and-personal experience with these once nearly extinct animals, the outcomes are sometimes bloody or even fatal for the seals. (Humans and their pets are encouraged to stay behind the beach's fencing for their own safety. Posted signs remind sightseers that, among other dangerous attributes, the seals are "faster than you think.") Adult males will remain at the beach until almost the end of January, when they will migrate out to sea.
Females begin arriving in December. The adult seals breed, and pregnant females give birth to the pups from last year's breeding, starting in the middle of the month through the middle of February. By spring, the females will have returned to the ocean, leaving their pups behind and making way for the return of the juveniles.
While juveniles make occasional appearances on the beach throughout the year, breeding/birthing season is one of only two times adult elephant seals reside on the beach. The seals also return when they make their annual molt, usually late spring and through the summer.
Part of Hearst San Simeon State Park, the Piedras Blancas colony of elephant seals was first documented in 1990 with a population of about two dozen. Two years and about four hundred seals later, the first pup was born, and the area is now thought to be home to around ten percent of all elephant seals.