• Popular elephant seal becomes a big bully

    By Thom Akeman

    The large elephant seal that has been visiting Pacific Grove on and off for the past six weeks turned mean this week and started chasing the smaller harbor seals off the beach they frequent at Hopkins Marine Station.

    The 2,000 pound bully had been docile during his visit, sleeping most of the days he was on the beach while leery harbor seals slept at safe distances to the sides of him. That changed Monday when the elephant seal woke from a nap, went for a swim, bellowed his rumbling warnings a few times, then came back onto the sand and chased the smaller seals into the water. He cleared the beach again on Monday and had it all to himself as hundreds of people gathered alongside the Coastal Trail to watch. Taking control

    The elephant seal disappeared the next day and scores of harbor seals reclaimed their sand and spread across it. The big guy was back on Wednesday, though, and the harbor seals once again grouped at the sides of the beach to stay safely away from him.

    The elephant seal will stay as long as he wants, of course, and cause as much trouble as he wants for the harbor seals. But he should be leaving soon to start his long swim across the Pacific. The 150,000 or so Northern Elephant Seals are only out of the water about two months a year, usually around December and January when they gather in breeding colonies so the females can give birth and nurse their pups, then mate to get started on the next year’s offspring.Big MEANIE

    The loner visiting here is an adult male said by the experts to be 6 years old. It’s anybody’s guess why he’s here and not in one of the breeding colonies. The largest on the mainland is about 100 miles south of here around San Simeon, where some 16,000 elephant seals gather at this time of year. A better known breeding colony is about 60 miles north of here in Ano Nuevo State Park, where about 5,000 elephant seals gather each year.

    The PG visitor may be alone, but he’s drawn thousands of people to the fence next to the Hopkins beach. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s Bay Net docents have talked to more than 4,000 spectators about the misplaced elephant seal and the harbor seals he’s disrupting. The most common question they’ve been asked is simply, “What is that?” .From passersby who know elephant seals on sight, the most common question has been, “Why is he here?” And some knowledgeable residents have asked if he might be returning after an earlier visit, as younger elephant seals have been seen fairly often on the Hopkins beach during the past eight or nine years.

    The most reasonable speculation is that this elephant seal may have gone to one of the massive gathering spots and been rebuffed by the biggest males who collect harems of females and chase away competing males.

    It’s impossible to know if he may be one of the pups, 2- or 3-year olds who have been seen here over the years because elephant seals generally change appearance from year to year and few are tagged by researchers. There have also been four other adult male elephant seals, all believed to be a year or two younger than this one, that have visited Hopkins in the past three years. The other adult male elephant seals that visited PG also harassed the harbor seals that live here, biting and killing at least one, chasing others off the beach, as their testosterone turned them into bullies.

    Scientists are concerned about the increasing presence of elephant seals here and the impact it might have on our harbor seals because Hopkins has the only fenced beach in PG, Monterey or Pebble Beach. Consequently that has become the favorite resting spot for the estimated 700 harbor seals in the Monterey Peninsula colony because they are safe from people while they sleep away their days there. Harbor seals need that rest because they are nocturnal and feed at night, going as far into the ocean as it takes to find enough food.

    (Thom Akeman is one of the Bay Net volunteers who observes and discusses seals along the shoreline.)

    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 23, 2013

    Topics: About PG, Front PG News, Green

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