A sunny day in January, warm. The willows grow around us in the sand, offshore a small island, with a somehow faint grey house, that was once the lighthouse keepers’. We hear them before we see them, the orchestra of the elephant seals, some of their sounds not obviously mammalian, but sounding like gongs, something hitting metal, percussive rings. Then we see them, a couple males sparring at the edge of the water, others moving rapidly with their odd squirming movement along the beach; before long we are fairly close, and we see mothers, babies, a copulating pair, the male bites the females back in some sort of foreplay. Around 3000 of these huge seals are here in the breeding colony of Año Nuevo State Reserve. By the end of the 19th century the northern elephant seal was believed extinct, having been plundered for their oil; then a few were discovered to have survived at Guadelupe Island off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. Today there are more than 125,000 having survived and grown from that genetic bottleneck. In recent years new rookeries have been established in Oregon and on the southern tip of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Something hopeful to take away from that; extinction is not inevitable.
They are a species with many curious features, besides the males’ trunk-like proboscis: they have an unusual amount of blood which absorbs a lot of oxygen, so allowing their incredible dives. Females can dive deeper than a mile. They also molt, losing their fur but also their complete outer layer of skin as well.And they are huge, males often weighing 5,000 pounds!
This is animism: feeling the power of this species once abused and slaughtered by humans for oil to the verge of extinction, now after may decades of protection tolerant to the humans who come to see them, and occasionally curious about us too, one huge male looking back at the funny anthropoids on top of the dune. Crows and gulls hang around the seals, hoping to snatch an afterbirth. The sun glitters on the sea. Inland forested hills, green with conifers. A researcher from UC Santa Cruz shows a mannequin of a female made from fiberboard, they pull it and play female calls, and young males will chase after it blinded by sexually attractive cues, not unlike many a human male, and right on to a scale where they are weighed. Bottles of Clairol for dyeing the numbers on pinniped fur, allowing easy identification of individuals are laid out by it. The threads of connection are many, some improbable—the ecological, both the harsh and the beautiful; history; curiosity; and wonder.