The beachmaster raised his head, surveyed the scene for rivals, then grunted loudly before going back to sleep.
Despite a summer of wildfires just beyond the beach and a brewing storm that would wash away pups along with houses, the elephant seals keep coming to California on a migration that dates back hundreds of thousands of years. On isolated beaches up and down the coast, the females arrive first to give birth, then mate with the late-arriving alpha males. By late February the adults are gone, leaving the pups to fend for themselves for a few months on land before they, too, take to the ocean.
The scene above differs from a century ago only in the throngs of tourists watching it all from a boardwalk just 10 feet away. The seals used to be hunted for the oil from the their blubber and were wary of humans as their numbers dwindled to 50 animals. But the development of kerosene and petroleum left them with no commercial value and their population has grown to 250,000.
Thousands were on display in early January in the Piedras Blancas rookery just off Highway 1 near Hearst Castle. We were part of a Road Scholar trip witnessing the four migrations in the region in January – birds, whales and monarch butterflies were the other three.
Many in our group were Easterners congratulating themselves on booking a week on the central California coast three months ago that turned out to be the coldest in a hundred years back home
And Shannon, our trip leader, noted that the trip was nearly rained out last year, with a mudslide wiping out the ground floor of the hotel and forcing a retreat to the second floor. Little did she know what was about to come down just a day after she said goodbye to us.
So the vibes were positive even as the first clouds of winter moved into San Luis Obispo – they made for better sunsets even if the monarchs were less active than they would have been in full sun.
MORE LIKE SUMO WRESTLING
Of the four migrations, the most interesting to observe was that of the seals – a video I made with sound is more like a Sumo wrestling event than a day at the beach. Mothers and pups try their best to stay out of the way of the raging bulls, but the pitiful little corpses of pups that littered the beach showed that many failed. At sea, the males are swimming and diving machines, able to hold their breath for 25 minutes while descending to 3,000 feet and foraging the bioluminescent bottom dwellers.
The monarch butterflies at nearby Pismo Beach numbered about 14,000 this year, part of a generation that lives about six months while “wintering” on their southern range. (Many Midwest monarchs winter over in Mexico.) It takes three more generations to make the migration north then return south – genetic programming allows entirely different individuals to complete the journey than the ones who started.
Monarch populations are declining, mainly due to herbicides that are wiping out their essential food, the milkweed and habitat loss in Mexico due to logging. And climate change isn’t helping as more violent storms and parched summers batter the tiny insects.
The Pismo Beach colony is in a grove of giant eucalyptus trees just off Highway 1, so it is easily accessible by a paved path that takes you to within a few dozen feet of dense clusters hanging from the branches. At first they looked like bright brown leaves; only when the clumps started dispersing in the sunshine was it clear what I was seeing through the binoculars.
WHALES ON THE MOVE
The migrating birds were a favorite of the birders in our group, all armed with camera lenses the length of my forearm. We enjoyed just walking the boardwalks and seeing pelicans, night herons, coots and cormorants all within the same ponds. Were it not for the highest tides of the year, they might have been a lot closer.
The gray whales were migrating south to calving grounds in Baja, and they weren’t stopping for tourist photos. We chased several while bobbing in a tour boat a mile offshore amid 10-foot swells. Just their arched backs above the surface stretched for 6 to 10 feet – we’ll need to book a different Road Scholar trip to Baja to see the rest of them underwater.
The main advantage of going with Road Scholar is having all the day trips arranged in advance, supplemented by expert local commentary and a live wildlife lecture or movie at night. In addition to the four migrations, we got up close with sea otters and a Cooper’s hawk, plus learned a lot about migrating salmon and how to make wine. And thanks to a rendezvous with former Daily Sun colleague Lisa Miller, we learned about San Luis Obispo and how Cal Poly, just like NAU, is starting to crowd out affordable workforce housing – and other fun facts about the region.
WILD ANIMALS NEED WILDERNESS
It was not lost on me or others that we were witness to free-flowing and protected animal migrations across international borders even as the U.S. debated whether to put up border walls for humans and deport young Dreamers to the land of their birth. As a thought exercise, imagine having to stop and count all those whales, birds and butterflies re-entering U.S. territory from South America each year, then subject them to a quota. And what if Mexico and other nations reciprocated?
The animal kingdom, of course, operates according to a different genetic and natural calculus when it comes to migrations. And most manage the feat in spite of, not because of, human presence. If we learned anything on this trip, it is that animal migrations predate human settlement and are best accomplished as far from civilization as possible. The central California coast in January is hardly wilderness, so it was a privilege to get glimpses up close of wildlife that would be better off just left alone. Next time you are solicited by a wildlife advocacy organization, ask first whether they are in it strictly to preserve the species and wild ranges or to also make accommodations for human access and economic benefit. The survival of many migratory species may depend on it.