A Sunset of Ruminative Stink

A 2009 sunset at Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Beach. | Photo: puliarf/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Should you visit Piedras Blancas beach (and I recommend it highly), I advise you visit in the evening's last light. There is something bizarrely ethereal and comforting about the gloaming that drapes itself on this stretch of sand seven miles north of San Simeon.

It is also true that many days the wind up here blows cold, raking over the white-capped Pacific and striking you in the face like a salt-laced snowball. That's not all that strikes you in the face. The smell at Piedras Blancas is atrocious. Hideous. Horrific. Pucker-worthy. Part of the fun is trying to put words to it. Maybe damp socks left too long. Maybe a latrine left too long. Maybe a little of both, say a high school locker room housed in an oversize port-o-potty due to educational budget cuts.

Today's cold wind is my savior. God knows what this place must smell like on a still summer afternoon. The stench must pile up like some olfactory Tower of Babel. One wonders if the friendly Friends of the Elephant Seal docents who roam the boardwalk and parking area during normal working hours carry supplemental oxygen. Here dearie, have a snort of this. The cold is my friend for another reason, too. I enjoy my fellow man well enough, but when pondering adjectives and communing with nature I prefer to be alone. Cold, especially in prissy Southern California, effectively discourages dilettantes. I share the evening's ruminative setting with only a young couple and a small boy. At least I think it is a small boy. It could also be a knee-high stack of tires. If it is a child, it's bundled to the point of mummification. Whatever it is, it bounces about, gesturing madly at the phantasmagorical scene on the beach.

I speak, of course, of the famed elephant seals. Elephant seals first began arriving on this beach a slight spit off Highway 1 in late 1990, less than two dozen elephant seals congregating in the small cove just south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse. The following spring some 400 elephant seals trooped ashore. From there, not unlike mankind's own California influx, things imploded. The Friends of the Elephant Seal estimate that the Piedras Blancas rookery is now home to about 17,000 animals over the course of the year. At one point they were clambering up the slight coastal cliffs, laying the bobbing flowered hillsides low, and lurching out on to the two-lane macadam of Highway 1. One can only imagine the reaction of Iowa tourists as they rounded the bend. Gawdalmighty Eloise. What the hell was in that cough syrup?

These days the elephant seals are largely blocked from the road by fencing, an able enough deterrent for an animal that can easily weigh in excess of 4,000 pounds. While not notable climbers, elephant seals are spryer than you might think. On soft sand they can move faster than most humans. This does not concern me, as I stand on the small boardwalk stringing along the coastal cliffs some 15 feet above the beach. Should one of the enormous creatures on the sand suddenly take an inexplicable interest in the four forms staring down at them, I only have to run faster than Michelin boy.

Seen through our eyes elephant seals are bizarre looking creatures, especially the adult males with their great noses waggling like some grotesque amalgam of elephant trunk and turkey neck. The large nose is a secondary sexual characteristic that indicates physical and sexual maturity. It may also indicate stamina. A single alpha male might have as many as fifty females in his harem.

On this smelly-soft evening there are only a handful of males, and they don't seem interested in much of anything other than lifting their heads occasionally to make a basso, throaty plocking noise not unlike a clogged sink finally draining. Another fun game, trying to describe the noises elephant seals make. To my highly trained naturalist's ear they sound like a spluttering basso engine, or maybe a recording of a sleep apnea convention, or perhaps a gathering of very uninhibited dinner guests with irritable bowel syndrome.

Those elephant seals that aren't engaged in making noises lay as if dead, several hundred fat bratwurst going dark in the last light. Occasionally an elephant seal rises to squirm a few yards, its body exhibiting an impressive Jello-like rippling before it snow plows abruptly back into the sand.

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Perhaps this paucity of movement emboldens Michelin Boy. He and his parents have wandered close enough that I hear his request.

"Can I go down there?"

His parents prove wiser than most tourists. The boardwalk is peppered with signs, facts about elephant seals that are no doubt informative and educational, but facts I cannot relay to you because I can't remember a single one. However, I do remember the cautionary sign. It read...

Warning. Elephant seals...
Are large
Have teeth and bite
Are faster than you think
Are wild

Such signs always strike me as a wanton waste of wood and paint, until I read about someone laying down on an airport runway or climbing over a guardrail to walk into the Merced River for a better look at the over pour at Vernal Falls.

Jimmy's parents are cut from wiser cloth.

"We have to watch from up here, Jimmy," the mother says. "They're wild animals. They can be dangerous."

Jimmy makes a dismissive sound not unlike a fart, but he stays where he is.

"They look like a bunch of lazy, fat hot dogs," he says.

Jimmy's observation is certainly accurate, but it is man's habit to underestimate the abilities of our natural brethren with whom we share this planet. Later when I returned home I did a little elephant seal research. I remember these facts because they are sitting right here in front of me. Elephant seals may appear immobile on the beach, but they migrate thousands of miles each year. They can dive to depths of 5,000 feet, although a still impressive 1,000 to 2,000 feet is more the norm. Scientists, registering these deepest dives, have found elephant seals can hold their breath for up to two hours. This also may come in handy on the beach. It's also speculated that, after swimming and diving in the open ocean for months, elephant seals return to mate on the same beach where they were born. One need only stand on the boardwalk and listen to the screeching fishtailing of cars on the road above to realize their sense of direction is far better than ours.

But here's what impresses me the most about elephant seals. It's true, to establish dominance the male bulls often battle each other for females, but it's also true that these battles rarely result in serious harm. This is partly because, endowed with a calloused shield and an impressively thick layer of blubber in their chest and neck, the big bulls are built to last. But it is also true that the battles rarely last long, and often never start at all.

I have seen elephant seals on other beaches, most notably on San Miguel Island, one of the five islands that comprise Channel Islands National Park and a place so rugged and windswept it makes Piedras Blancas look like Cozumel. Nowhere in the world will you find more pinnipeds; California sea lions, harbor seals, northern fur seals and, yes, northern elephant seals (many of the Piedras Blancas elephant seals come from San Miguel). Their gathering represents one of the largest congregations of wildlife in the world.

Suffice to say, on San Miguel there is a lot of mating and, prior to that, much male posturing for the shot at mating. One fine spring day I hiked out to Point Bennett, San Miguel's westernmost point, with island ranger Ian Williams. I will never forget what Ian told me as the two of us crouched submissively behind the dunes, gazing out at lovely slab of wild beach smeared with hundreds of pinnipeds.

"It's really interesting," Ian said softly. "There's a lot of vocalization, posturing and bluff charging, but there's not a lot of actual fighting. A lot of it is settled at lower levels of force. Every once in awhile the bulls will latch on to each other and give each other a few swats, but that's about it. It's so much saner than what humans do. We go straight for the trigger."

Perhaps we are not built to last.

I consider this sobering thought now. Here at Piedras Blancas the sun has dropped to the sea. The wind blows harder and rawer still. The family is gone.

Ian's words ringing in my head, I should be depressed but I'm not. I no longer search for words. For one thing, it's your turn. When you visit Piedras Blancas one evening you will come up with words of your own for this beauty.

Whatever poetic notions you conjure to describe the scene, as the gloaming fades you should stop and go quiet, in mouth and in mind. After a time you may feel it, something profoundly soothing, creeping up on you as delicately as night's touch, trumping the sights, sounds and even the smells of Piedras Blancas.

Here, as the day winks out, life continues on.

Ken McAlpine is a three-time Lowell Thomas award-winner. His most recent book is "Fog," praised by one critic as "one of the most intelligent, richly detailed, deeply felt and evocative novels I've read." He writes weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog about Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

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