Within just a few days of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) completing its culvert work on the viewing boardwalk of the North Beach, the first adult male elephant seal arrived at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery for the 2021-2022 birthing and mating season. With the number of seals on the beaches now increasing each day for the popular birthing season, the timing for the reopening of the boardwalk could not have been better.
As more adult males arrive in the coming days and weeks, holding onto an area of beach will depend on the seal’s ability to fight off competing adult male seals who may desire the same area of beach to attract a harem of female seals. Time will tell if this year’s first arrival will be able to prevent other males from taking the beach that he is now proudly holding as his.
As adult males arrive, the more dominant males will win claim to the larger areas of the beach that attract a greater number of females arriving to give birth. After about four weeks of nursing their pups, the adult female seals become interested in mating with the alpha male (aka beach master) who has control of their area of the beach. For this opportunity to mate, the alpha male does not leave his area of the beach, going without food or water for about three months and losing well over 1,000 pounds in weight.
Elephant seals have good memories. Once a fight establishes a winner, the two seals remember their ranking and avoid wasting energy on a second fight. Defeated males also establish and remember their ranking among other defeated males. Nevertheless, defeated males like to linger around the edge of the harem hoping to quietly meet up with a female seal when the dominant seal may be sleeping or occupied with another seal in his haram. This surreptitious effort rarely goes unnoticed. Once the established alpha male is alerted to the intrusion into his territory, it usually takes no more than a look or sound from the alpha male to cause a defeated male to hastily abort his plan and retreat from the harem of females.
The ongoing interactions between the adult male seals, along with the birth of thousands of pups (usually beginning in late December) make this the most popular season at the rookery for visitors.