Originally posted in April 2014

Oh, I mean elephant seals…

So, for Earth Day, here is a short visual blog about a true conservation success story: the northern elephant seal. 

According to the University of California, San Diego and California State Parks, elephant seals were slaughtered in the 1800s by whalers once they ran out of whales to hunt (you know, seal blubber is a good substitute for whale blubber so you could read at night by lamp light).

In 1892, only 50 to 100 individuals were left on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.   

In 1922, the Mexican government gave the seals “protected status,” and the U.S. government soon followed. Because of those actions and the passage of time, we now have more than 120,000 individuals in California waters alone. Even though the seals face a “genetic bottleneck” (or lack of genetic diversity), it is a resounding story of nature’s success to come back from the brink of extinction! 

So there were just a couple of them, chillin’ on the beach when I visited…

By the way, this was only in one direction. There were many more on this beach as well a whole separate beach filled with them.   

By the way, this was only in one direction. There were many more on this beach as well a whole separate beach filled with them.

So, what is the funny thing about elephant seals

Well, one this is their look! The nose certainly knows here.  

That crazy proboscis makes a deep, drumming sound to intimidate other males and boasts their reproductive fitness to the ladies. The “beach masters,” who control harems of females on the best patches of beach, have the biggest snouts and therefore the deepest bellows. And, they are also the biggest and baddest in general. 

Want to hear what they sound like? Listen here (bull elephant seal with frogs in the background). Source: California Department of Parks and Recreation.

Unlike actual elephants, the elephant seals can’t pickup peanuts with their noses (i.e., it isn’t prehensile), but the large schnoz is good for blowing sand around!

Making Jimmy Durante jealous...

Making Jimmy Durante jealous...

The ladies, unfortunately, don’t look quite so…comical. 

So, besides their look, to me, the funny thing about elephant seals was how dynamic and political they were! I hate anthropomorphizing animals (subject for another blog) but these seals, in their large social groups, made their motivations very clear by squawking, nipping, and shouting at each other. 

For example, females barked at each other over the best patches of sand or when they got too close to each others’ offspring. The males postured and yelled at each other when one came too close to the other male's harem. It was a constant ebb and flow of movement, sound, and political intrigue as “sneaky males” would try and enjoy the company of another male’s harem from time to time (also similar to humans at times apparently). 

This is when fights would break out when one male refused to “step down" from another (just like in human society). 

The males drum out challenges and then get closer and closer, moving surprisingly fast in their 13 foot long, 4,000+ pound bodies (see a YouTube clip here [not my video]). 

If one doesn’t back down, they rise up and slam their massive heads into each other, biting and slashing with their four big teeth. The white marks on the males’ calloused, blubbery necks are literally wounds from teeth gouges. The fights are powerfully violent. 

If a person got too close to one of these angry males, they would certainly kill you!

GIF of the powerfully violent fight!

So what is the point of all this violence, posturing, and accumulation of sandy wealth? The next generation of course (just like in our society). 

As Dave Chapelle (link has explicit language) says, “Men have nice cars. Not because they like nice cars, but because they know women like nice cars!” The funny thing about elephant seals is their less complex social groups allow us to see their motivations laid bare, which, at least for me, is a foil that I use to review my own efforts, motivations, and endeavors and then decide if I like what actions I’m taking.  

Happy Earth Day!

To learn more about elephant seals, visit the Friend of the Elephant Seal’s FAQ page.

Photo Nerd Stuff

Warning: this section is for photo geeks only :-)

This blog and set of photos was to fulfill one of my 40 before 40 tasks and I rented a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens to take the above pictures. This is a very large, professional quality piece of equipment (classified as a super telephoto lens).

It was a truly amazing feat of engineering and I was only able to get the close up shots above because of the ridiculous amount of refined glass in the front of the lens! The focus speed and smoothness was excellent and the diameter of the lens was so big I was able to focus really easily by hand. 

You could photograph the Super Bowl or the Olympics with this lens, no problem.

While the seals were actually quite close to the overlook (deck built by the State of CA), the huge lens allowed me to get so much detail you can see hairs coming off the seals head (see below)! For the fight between the two males, that was at least 10 yards away (and probably more) but the lens was so fast and razor sharp, I was able to get some dynamic, large format photos.

It was a fun experience, and I would definitely rent it again, but after 1.5 hours of adjusting aperture, fixing focus, and composing shots of my "ever moving sausage-like subjects,” I was mentally exhausted. It was the same feeling as trying to speak a new language for two hours without rest: mentally taxing. 

So, to cap the day off, I had a locally-sourced burger and beer by the beach and headed back south! Great fun.