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Beached Bedlam : Once Near Extinction, Lusty Northern Elephant Seals Crowd Onto San Miguel Island for Yearly Mating Frenzy

March 09, 1989|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times Staff Writer

SAN MIGUEL ISLAND — Four thousand northern elephant seals--huge mounds of fur and blubber that resemble cute little circus seals the way King Kong resembles Bonzo--are packed belly to belly on a beach here on the most remote island in the Channel Islands National Park.

Mouths agape, they are fighting, birthing, resting, whining, roaring, shoving and mating like crazy. The older males square off--as much as their 3,800 pounds and 13 feet will allow--and spar for territory, ripping and bloodying the thick skin around their great necks. Through their trunk-like snouts, they let loose noises such as those from a pile driver pounding a metal shed. Whenever a female bears a calf, screeching sea gulls swoop in for the afterbirth.

Mothers bellow when their calves stray too far. The battles for mothers' milk and for mates--a bull will mate with as many as 20 females a season--are ceaseless. In a sign of irritation partly due to the presence of human intruders, thousands of flippers throw up spumes of sand all over the beach, bringing the panorama to a boil.

The scene is the business of life for Mirounga angustirostris , and even National Park Service veterans gaze upon it with awe.

"It's truly startling to see all that biomass out there," said Don Morris, the park's acting resource manager. "Before I saw it for the first time four years ago, I'd never seen that much wildlife in one place. I don't think many people have."

One marvel is that it happens at all.

Around the turn of the century, elephant seals were thought to be near extinction. After 50 years of slaughter for the use of their oil in lamps, the species had dwindled to as few as 100 known animals that would breed and pup on Guadalupe Island, 150 miles west of Baja California. Hunted by the Chumash, U.S. and Russian traders, and Chinese merchants who extracted purported aphrodisiacs from the seals' testicles, the species had disappeared from San Miguel.

They began a slow return in the 1940s and have been multiplying furiously ever since. Half the world's northern elephant seals are born on the island from December through February.

Today, scientists estimate, the northern elephant seal population has soared to 120,000. And San Miguel, also a port of call for tens of thousands of harbor seals, California sea lions and three rarer species, hosts "the biggest concentration of seals in the Northern Hemisphere south of Alaska," said biologist Brent S. Stewart, a veteran seal observer on the 14-square-mile island.

San Miguel also has one of the smallest concentrations of people. A park ranger and his family live at one end. At the other end, a few scientists sporadically put in time at a "research station," a one-room stucco shack commanding a view of pristine coves and dunes covered with ice plant.

An island fox jumps here; a meadowlark warbles there. Wind rakes the island, sometimes exposing the bones at Chumash burial sites. Meanwhile, the elephant seals, whose ranks are swelling by about 8% a year, take over new stretches of beach.

"So many big mammals around the world are in serious trouble," said Stewart, a staff scientist with Hubbs Marine Research Center in San Diego, "but this is one of the very few that actually has been growing over the last century."

12 Years of Research

For 12 years, Stewart, a hearty, red-bearded man who peppers his enthusiastic seal monologues with such phrases as "median weaning date," has tried to figure out why, and at what point, the elephant seal population will expand beyond its natural limits.

To be sure, the lamp-oil trade died about 1870, the furs of elephant seals never were terribly attractive, and the National Marine Mammals Act of 1972 forbade killing them or any other seal. But, while several other seal species have dwindled or come back only modestly, elephant seals, along with California sea lions, have rebounded with gusto.

In 1977, the Air Force contracted with Hubbs, a division of the Sea World Research Institute, for what was to become a long-term seal study. Among other things, officials wanted to predict the effects of space shuttle launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, fearing that sonic booms might stampede the breeding animals.

Each year since, Stewart has studied the flip side of extinction.

"There really isn't a good understanding of what influences large-mammal populations," he said, stepping nimbly across the beach to avoid angry nips. "We need to find out where they're feeding and whether males and females feed in the same places. We want to find out if animals from different colonies use the same area. We don't even know exactly where they go when they're not here."

Small details fill the life of a seal researcher. The bigger patterns will emerge only over elephant-seal generations of perhaps 20 to 30 years--nobody knows just how long the animals live. So far, many of the discoveries of Stewart and others are more intimate than monumental.

Days Females Arrive

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