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An elephant seal enters the world: Capturing a rare and beautiful moment in words and on camera

By Jodi Frediani

The late afternoon winter sky was clear, the sun low, and the air brisk as I hiked from the Visitor’s Center at Ano Nuevo State Park with my cousin Pam Koch. Pam is a docent who leads guided tours of the elephant seal rookery located on the mainland beaches sheltered by Ano Nuevo Island, a mere forty miles south of San Francisco Bay.

This Saturday afternoon visit was special, as Pam had gifted me a spot at the Ano Nuevo Seal Adventure, the annual fundraiser sponsored by the Coastside State Parks Association. Rather than be led from one viewing location to another, guests could wander through the dunes to the best viewing spots, directed by rangers and docents stationed at trail intersections. We were cautioned to avoid errant resting males who might be found smack in the middle of the trails, looking like enormous, misplaced boulders. Unsuspecting visitors could easily startle these sleeping behemoths who can move their blubbery selves surprisingly fast with the right motivation.

Seal Adventure is a golden opportunity for photographers, as we were allowed to spend as much time as we wished observing from an assortment of stations safely located along the dunes. Below us the beaches were chock-a-block full of the fat bodies of resting elephants seals who had begun arriving in December.

It was easy, too easy, to get distracted by the mass of blubbery bodies spread from the dunes to the water’s edge. Flipping sand to cool themselves in the warm January sun, young males and females enjoyed a well-deserved rest after spending months at sea. Here and there, a pup could be seen snuggling close to its mother, and the enormous adult bulls, with their elephant trunk-like proboscises leading to the name ‘elephant seal’, were scattered among the smaller animals.

Elephant seals on beach. ©Jodi Frediani

 

Pairs of large bulls could be seen in the shallow surf, or at the edge of the crowd, fighting to become the alpha and garner or maintain a harem of females. The soothing sound of the surf on the beach was punctuated by the sonorous racket of their snorting and grunting.

These battles sometimes become bloody, leaving the bulls bearing scars on their ‘chest shields,’ though most of the displays are more a matter of intimidation. Nonetheless, these face-offs are important, as only the few high-ranking males actually get to mate.

But it was the female closest to us that suddenly caught our attention. Perhaps someone had noticed as she quietly labored, but as her pup emerged into a world of sunshine and sand, exclamations escaped the human crowd, and all faces turned in awe to witness this lucky event. Slithering silently onto the beach, exiting from beneath mom’s rear flippers, a new member of the colony appeared before our very eyes.

Elephant seal birth. ©Jodi Frediani

Read the rest of this story, originally published on Nat Geo Ocean Views on August 10, 2017, here. 

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