The Elephant Seals of Route 1

Remember the film ‘Happy Feet’? When Mumble is undertaking his epic journey to find the ‘aliens’, he happens across a pack of elephant seals who are blocking his path. They’re depicted as large, overpowering beasts with little concern for beings who disrupt their activities. Before yesterday I had never thought of them as actual creatures that exist, let alone ones that spend all day sleeping on a beach on the Pacific Coast, whilst hoards of gawping tourists ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over them. Yesterday we spent most of the day driving south on Route 1 marvelling at the scenery, vast mountains on one side and sparkling cerulean oceans on the other. In the early evening we passed a road sign, “Elephant Seals, Vista Point, 1/2 Mile”. Naturally, in excitement we pulled over to try and catch a glimpse of these prehistoric-looking beasts. I was expecting that when we got to the top of the beach, we would spend 15 minutes gazing out over the ocean only to see one or two animals rising above the waves, be bitterly disappointed, and then continue sadly on our way. But oh boy, was I mistaken.

When we began along the coastal path just above the beach, we saw around 30 people chatting excitedly and gesticulating in the direction of the sea. Upon reaching them we looked across the sand and saw what looked like big, oily, black boulders covered in sand lying on the beach. When we looked closer, we saw eyes, whiskers, fins and the thick, wrinkly, distended nose that distinguishes the elephant seal from others of its family. They lay strewn across each other, sheltering from the sudden chilly weather which had arrived at the coast. Some looked as if they were cuddling, with fins stretched across each other’s backs. Every so often one would begin wriggling under the pile, and the others nearby would roar in annoyance at the disturbance. They struck me as rather irritable creatures, unwilling to let another get the better of him. This point was proven when a certain older, distinguished-looking seal dragged his heavy frame over to the biggest pile of seals and flopped down on top, with a tremendous sigh. Immediately the animal on whose head he had just sat rose up with an almighty bellow. The two creatures reared their great, ugly heads to face each other across the sand. In turn, they demonstrated their battle cries in an attempt to dissuade their sparring partner from further activity. However instead of dispelling the argument the noise only added fuel to the fire. The complainant with the sore head took an almighty swing with a great, wrinkled fin, aiming to chop at the neck of the monster who had sat on him. When the blow to the neck was received, his opponent opened his jaw and snapped back. Both animals stopped and, seeming satisfied with the result of the conflict, proceeded to flop down next to each other and fall back asleep. If only real-life conflicts were solved this easily. Maybe we could learn from the elephant seals.

Watching the creatures moving to and from the ocean was one of the most entertaining sights of the day. As seals are much more comfortable in water, when they were on the beach they would struggle to move even a short distance. One would rise from his slumber, wriggle across the sand a few feet and then collapse, the effort being too great. After a break of a few minutes he would again rise, wriggle a few more feet, and then collapse. It took about ten minutes for each seal to travel the 15 metres to the water’s edge. Once there, they would wait for the water to pull them in before gliding off to find some dinner, their forms being swallowed by the waves.

The sight of these magnificent beasts stuck with me for the rest of the journey. Their large, cumbersome forms made them appear comic at first glance, but the ferocity with which they defended their patch of sand made me thank the sky that I was on my side of the fence. Their lack of energy and love of sleep made me strangely identify with them, but I’m hoping that that’s as far as our similarities go.

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