Patience is Required

By Chuck Graham   |   May 16, 2023
A mother’s patience being tested

Not too much of it though, myself and the western gulls were growing anxious. However, all I had to do was observe and study the throngs of those hungry seabirds, and then eventually the drama unfolded.

The northern elephant seal colony above San Simeon and surrounding the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse on the Central California Coast, has become the second-largest colony in the world for the second-largest seal in the world. As of 2023, there are approximately 25,000 of Mirounga angustirostris that utilize those beaches for hauling out, breeding, and pupping. 

While all those sights, sounds, smells, and drama took place on that scenic, yet rugged coastline, the gulls lied in wait. Other than the ginormous, 3,000 to 5,000-pound bulls battling over their harems and coastal real estate, the other flurry of activity anticipated was the gulls in an utter frenzy over each pup born on those craggy beaches. With around 5,000 weaners born at the San Simeon colony in January and February 2023, it’s a fantastic food source the gulls can count on and can’t pass up.


It’s not actually the weaners themselves the gulls are hungry for, but the afterbirth that arrives with each pup. The gulls go nuts over it. Once a pup is born, the gulls swarm the birth. For several anxious moments, the pups disappear in a flurry of feathers, while the worrisome mothers lunge and chase off the ravenous seabirds. 

Sometimes the afterbirth is still attached to the newborn, and that’s when the mothers get aggressive and protective. A pup can be pecked and tugged on by the legion of gulls and become separated from their angry mothers. They bellow at the gulls, forcing them to disperse until the moms and pups are reunited.

Don’t mess with this mama

On many occasions, gulls fight over the afterbirth and then there are many tug-of-wars that ensue among thousands of northern elephant seals. I watched one juvenile western gull impressively fend off several adult gulls so it could consume the entire afterbirth! It gorged on the sack even heavier with all the sand clinging to it. Nature can be brutal, but after it was finished, the gull could barely move – having its fill of much-needed protein.

Other birds took advantage of the cycle of life at the pinniped colony. Stealthy as they come, black turnstones, a tiny shorebird, crept in among the scrum nabbing all the specks of afterbirth found around each newborn, and the insects that converged there as well. Snowy egrets, also stealthy, tiptoed among mothers with pups. Snowy egrets are waders and are adept at nabbing food items with their sword-like beaks. I watched one such egret deftly nabbing pesky insects off a slumbering northern elephant seal female and her pup. They never woke up. They didn’t even flinch.


January is the peak season for the pupping of northern elephant seals at their colonies along the West Coast. January 2023 was very wet. It truly felt like winter for a time, and while marveling at those hauled out, bickering, brutish marine mammals, heavy squalls interrupted the coastal drama.

At the end of the patience rainbow is a pot of protein gold

With each heavy squall pelting the Central Coast, my girlfriend Holly and I ran back to the sanctity of my new transit van; patience was required while waiting out the storms. Sideways rain enhanced by powerful northwest winds pelted everything. It was fun watching onlookers running back to their vehicles, as the elephant seals and birds simply hunkered down and endured weather to which they are accustomed.

However, once those squalls passed, incredible rainbows rich in color easily stood out over gray, white-capping seas. We quickly ran back out onto the boardwalk that overlooks the elephant seals and enjoyed their behaviors and constant drama. And then another squall blew through, followed by a brilliant double rainbow that arched northward over turbulent seas toward the historic Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. 

It was an incredible backdrop among yelping northern elephant seal pups, their doting mothers, and the polygamous beach masters guarding their harems and turf. Squalls or not, the drama never wavered at their colony, survival always a top priority rain or shine.  


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