Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Blubber is Back!

One of the coolest things about living in San Francisco, at least in my opinion, is the city's close proximity to areas of true wilderness. From the steel and concrete skyscrapers of the Financial District and bustling shopping mecca of Union Square, a landscape unblemished by the hand of man is easily within reach: the Marin Headlands, Mount Tamalpais, Point Reyes National Seashore, the Santa Cruz Mountains. From the white-noise, urban drone that hangs over parts of our city like a cloak of fog, the primal, untarnished voice of nature is never far away. The eerie howl of coyotes, the whisper of nothing but wind, the piercing screech of a raptor, the rumble of beach rocks being swept back underwater by a receding wave, the warning call of rattlesnakes and bobcats and Tule elk, the elusive hoot of an owl.

Or, in the case of the animal we're gonna discuss today, the noise something might make if it belched - really letting one rip - deep inside a rusty, 400-gallon steel drum. Oh, and in Dolby THX to boot.

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Tucked away in a quiet, scenic but unremarkable stretch of the San Mateo coastline, less than 90 minutes south of San Francisco by car, one of nature's most outrageous wildlife displays is now underway. A drama, a love story, sometimes a tragedy and always a comedy: it's a Spectacular! Spectacular! starring some of the homeliest characters ever imagined, recorded in Surround Sound (Earthquake with Geneviève Bujold, anyone?), and staged on the sandy dunes and rocky point of land named Año Nuevo.

Behold mirounga angustirostris, if you will: the northern elephant seal. Truly something only a mother could love.

Photo courtesy of California State Parks

Eighty percent of an elephant seal life is spent at sea, but during the cold and rainy winter months thousands come ashore at Año Nuevo. In late December pregnant females arrive to give birth and nurse pups. The males, however - the BIG males, some of them weighing almost 2.5 tons, as large as an SUV big - are already there. They arrive first, stake out a prime claim on the beach and, of course, wait for the the belles of the ball: the, shall we say, Rubenesque females. Sexual intrigue ensues. And by March it's all over; some 1st year weaners remain, but most of the action has returned to life in the ocean.

Point Reyes has a colony elephant seals, as do several other sites on the California coast. That said, no place is more accessible and better for viewing than Año Nuevo State Reserve, and few have a larger population. For much of the year you can hike out to see the beasts on your own (they come ashore again to molt), but during the intensely competitive winter breeding season you need to snag a reservation for the 2.5 hour docent-led walks from the visitors center out to the colony.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 was my third trip to Año Nuevo. Each visit was fantastic, fantabulous, unforgettable, but this most recent one was blessed with clear, sunny skies (walks go rain or shine, and my two previous ones were pretty cold and wet), plus had a surprise encounter with a big male sneaking up behind us in the dunes.

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Here's a link to an iMovie I stitched together and posted to YouTube after my last trip.

Here's the link to a page with some official, scientific information on our population of elephant seals.

Whenever you're ready to schedule an outing, here's a link to the State Park website.

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And now for my own cinematic review of the festivities: Why you should go. Now.

The drama: Watch two 6,000 pound males go at it. Watch the beach master try to defend his harem, his breeding rights, and tell me it not just as riveting as Spartacus on the Starz Network.

The love story: There's nothing quite like the sight of an alpha male violently coercing a much smaller female to mate. Even if she's ready.

The tragedy: Unfortunately, the mortality rate for newborns is high. Danger abounds, and infant elephant seals get trampled in the melée all the time.

The comedy: Just look at them. They may be skilled aquatic swimmers and hunters, but just watch them try to make their way on land. And what's up with that proboscis, that bizarre nose? Scientists still can't figure out the purpose of such an odd, ungainly feature, but perhaps Mother Nature simply has a wicked sense of humor.

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So pack a lunch. Pack a water bottle and gloves and a hat and a rain slicker and an extra layer just in case. Make a reservation or take your chances. Who knows? I may see you out there, once more before the final screening this year.

Happy trails!
Peter J. Palmer

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