LImagine a treasure arriving from the deep sea. No it's not a message in a bottle, but a 3,000 pound, blubber-bound seal with an elephant nose! At Piedras Blancas, a Central California coast beach north of San Simeon, these creatures gather, but it's very rare to see them on any other beach. They're usually out in the open sea, but in the summer, they need to molt and shed the upper layer of their fur.
Elephant seals can stay underwater from 20 minutes up to an incredible one hour. Record dives can reach 5000 feet below the top swells of the sea. They dive into such dark and cold to find food rarely seen by humans, like deep-sea squid. In addition to the amazing depths they can reach, they also travel thousands of miles across the sea as they head to open waters (the female seals) or along the continental shelf (the male seals) and then back to their sandy rookery area in central California. The wonderful Friends of the Elephant seal page has a lot of firsthand research and great information.
After almost catastrophic hunting in the 1800s, elephant seals have received the protection of the Marine Mammal Protection Act since its passage in 1972. Still, there are natural threats such as fierce El Nino-driven winter storms. Wind-driven tides kick off a strong undertow that can pull pups out to sea when they are not ready for such depths.
But despite these threats, the elephant seals triumphantly return to the beach at Piedras Blancas. When I watched one haul out of the shallow water, I wondered if it had just gone for a cooling swim or was arriving from thousand-mile migration. It's no wonder that the first impulse of the seals is to take nap, which each one does after digging sand (which flies five feet in the air) to make a large depression. To get to Piedras Blancas, drive north from San Simeon. When you see the large white rocks out in the ocean, you know that are close. There are often docents present to answer questions.
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