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The Return

April 22, 2024

The Return

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Alys Granados Alys Granados

Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) don’t always look so social.

These pinnipeds spend nine to 10 months at sea, coming to land only twice a year to breed and molt (shedding old fur and skin patches). Every December to March, hundreds to thousands of seals arrive at California’s beaches to breed, packed so close to each other it is hard to believe they are mostly solitary the rest of the year. By the end of this period, there will be multiple age classes on the beach: adult males, measuring 13 feet in length and characterized by the long noses after which they are named, adult females that are a bit smaller but measure an impressive 10 feet, and the young seals born during that time.

Elephant seal pups must gain a lot of weight from mother’s milk, about 10 lbs a day, until they are weaned at only six weeks old. Before mom returns to the ocean, she’ll mate to give birth to another pup the following year.

While on land, adult elephant seals don’t eat. They are fasting as their energy comes from the fat in their blubber. They use that energy for mating and molting. By the time April comes around, the seals will have all gone back to their life at sea. The beach will seem desolate in comparison.

The good news is that the cycle will repeat next year as the large marine mammals return to the same beach to do it all over again.

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