Saturday, March 06, 2010

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo

For the first month of Adriana's life and then Lyra's I compared myself to an elephant seal. Somehow I had retained knowledge from a fifth-grade lesson and field trip to Año Nuevo that the mother elephant seals lie on the beach and nurse their babies for a month straight, not eating anything. I did at least get to eat (this time around I consumed ridiculous amounts of chocolate milk and peanut butter toast), but it felt like I did nothing but nurse for that first month. Oh, and I remembered that once the mothers go back to sea, the pups that remain are called "weaners" (and that the ones that manage to nurse from more than one mother and get extra big are called "super weaners"). In fact, now that I think of it, I probably only remember the thing about the weaners from the fifth grade. I probably picked up the bit about the nursing eight years ago when we visited the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery on our honeymoon (which I actually enjoyed a lot more than Hearst Castle).

At any rate, I've been feeling a special kinship with elephant seal cows, so when one of Brian's former colleagues who works as a docent at Año Nuevo offered us an "after hours" tour of the beach, I jumped at the chance, figuring that there had to be a way we could manage the hike with a toddler and an infant. We checked a couple of children's books about elephant seals out of the library to help get Adriana interested, and Brian put her in the frame backpack carrier (which had been sitting unused in our closet for at least a year) to confirm that she was willing to sit in it and that he could manage her weight now. It was rainy the morning of the tour, and I read that San Mateo County was closing beaches due to the tsunami watch, but it was supposed to be clearing up by our tour time, and Brian called the visitor center to check that they were still open, so off we went.

As it turned out, the rain was a very good thing, because the sand on the dunes was wet and easier to walk on. Our drive over the hill was very wet, but it was beautifully sunny as we turned to head up the coast, one of those gorgeous days with spectacular views that made me marvel that we are so lucky to live here (and lament that we no longer live at the beach), and we found that we didn't need all the layers of clothing we had brought. I was glad to have a maternity fleece with me, as it fit neatly around Lyra, who I was wearing in a Moby wrap.

The elephant seals were fantastic. Federal law requires that people stay at least 25 feet away from the seals, but they were everywhere, even up on the dunes, so it was sometimes hard to stay that far off. Most of the cows have already gone back into the ocean, so we didn't get to see any nursing mothers. We did still get to see lots of the weaners (and I did not giggle every time our guide said that--not loud enough that i could be heard, anyhow), including getting to watch one play around in the water. We got to hear the belching of the bulls and the funny squealing of the pups.

With the cows gone, many of the pups seemed a little bit lonely: one was snuggled up to a bull (who probably simply hadn't noticed the pup was there), and others were piled on top of one another in cuddle puddles.

We got a few good looks at the funny faces of the males, and the cute faces of the weaners.

Adriana handled the walk pretty well. She liked being in the backpack for a while, but she did want to get out. She had one meltdown that was partly hunger related and resolved relatively quickly with the help of a chocolate Clif bar. She did pay some attention to the elephant seals, but when we did let her out of the backpack for a bit, she was mostly interested in writing letters and building in the sand.

One bonus of going on this "after hours" tour was that when we were heading back we got to see the fog coming in, and, since we were walking straight toward the hills, we saw the nearly full moon rising between the peaks and disappearing quickly into the clouds above, and when we turned to look behind us we got to see a spectacular sunset.

The drive home was gorgeous, too, or at least the part from the reserve back down to Santa Cruz. Everything is so green from all the rain, and the hills to our left were deeply green in the twilight, looking gorgeous against the clear, dark sky with the moon glowing white over everything, making it bright enough still that we had a view of the ocean to our right. I wish I had a picture of that, but instead I will have to just hold on to the peaceful feeling the colors and the light gave me.


Ergo Baby Carrier said...

I know you like your sling with the baby on, but dont forget to make way for air too =)

Sue Frank said...


Thank you for this beautifully illustrated tale about your family and your fascination with elephant seals.

( I was blown away by the video (Maybe you've seen this?

This is a Southern elephant seal, appealiing beyond belief in its interaction with a person on a South Georgia Island beach.)

I can't get over the charm of the weaners and the incredible life these seals lead, coming and going between land and sea. No wonder we dream of selkies:-)
All the best,