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Call it fat city

Amid traffic and tourists, an elephant seal colony near San Simeon is flourishing on a rocky, shallow beach. Biologists are baffled.

June 28, 2005|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Scientists are surprised at the success of California's newest elephant seal colony thriving in a rocky cove near San Simeon, despite its proximity to zooming cars on Highway 1 and hordes of gawking tourists.

In a tale of adaptation and opportunity, biologists say the herd produced 3,500 pups last winter, 16% more than the year before and a rate higher than at other colonies.

Yet, the increase occurs in the shadow of intense human activity. Within 10 feet of the rookery runs a boardwalk used by more than 100,000 visitors annually, a freeway exit and a parking lot. On a recent sunny morning, more than two dozen people stood on the boardwalk and a nearby sea cliff, watching and snapping photos.

Pups and female seals look like fat torpedoes with fins and whiskers, lying motionless, except for an occasional snort, bellow or sand toss. Every few minutes, one awakens, shuffles into the sea for a dip, then returns to a warm sand bed.

Once hunted to near extinction, northern elephant seals were granted federal protection and now number more than 150,000. They breed beginning in November -- when adult males the size of SUVs gash each other with large canine teeth during battles for females -- and pups are born nearly one year later.

During spring and summer, the seals molt onshore before starting a biannual migration to waters off Alaska, Oregon and Washington to feed. They are expected to linger off the Central Coast through August.

But scientists are uncertain why the colony settled near Point Piedras Blancas and why it has outpaced other colonies on the coast. Elephant seals inhabit the northern Channel Islands and Baja California, among other places along the coast of North America.

Federal biologist Brian Hatfield discovered the colony on the Central Coast in 1990 when he walked out of his field station near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse and spotted about 20 young seals splashing in the cove.

"Wow, this is unusual," he remembers saying to himself. "I wonder if they will stay."

They stayed and thrived. The colony has swelled to an estimated 14,000 animals.

Hatfield, who also studies otters for the U.S. Geological Survey, keeps track of the seals by the tags on their back fins and has watched offspring of the original settlers give birth to pups.

UC Santa Cruz biologist Patricia Morris believes the colony settled near Piedras Blancas because the cove has a rocky, shallow beach where pups learn to swim, safe from sharks. Morris suspects nearby deep water allows the seals to escape predators. An adult seal can weigh 5,000 pounds, dive up to 5,000 feet, and remain submerged for as long as 90 minutes.

"I find them to be one of the most amazing animals in the world," she says.

Morris also has a theory for why the colony has grown so fast while others have grown slowly or remained stable. Recent research suggests newer colonies grow an average of about 14% per year because the inhabitants, such as the Piedras Blancas seals, have more elbow room and less competition for food.

But problems arise with so many people and large marine mammals in close proximity. A few years ago, motorists on Highway 1 -- four miles north of Hearst Castle -- began noticing the big gray and white animals in the sand. Wayward seals wandered onto the highway, and at least two motorists were injured before fencing was installed.

Still, some drivers parked on the side of the highway, climbed a fence, and crossed private property to reach the seals. Some people mounted the big males slumbering in the sand or posed for pictures with the pups. Experts warn such behavior is dangerous because the seals are big, strong and deceptively fast.

Worried about the safety of the animals, Friends of the Elephant Seal formed in 1997 to educate visitors and deploy docents on the boardwalk from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. From the path, people can get a close view of the seals' big white bellies, long drooping noses and smooth thick skin. The seals seem oblivious to the commotion, but Morris says it's just an act.

"They are very aware," she says. "They may just lay there but they know you are there."

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