You have to be pretty tough to be born on the Big Sur coast.
The wind was howling and the swell sent large breakers pouring over the washrocks into the cove this afternoon. With the ocean being this rough, it is common for the harbor seals to come from their more exposed beaches to the north and use Big Creek cove for shelter. Right now is prime-time for pups and I counted 15 females with pups on the beach. Interestingly, there is one pup that is nearly entirely white. Its face around the black nose is all pink.
I went up onto the bridge to get a bird’s-eye view and so that I wouldn’t startle them. Although I didn’t see the birth, I watched gulls picking at a placenta that must have been there for a pretty short amount of time. There was a streak of blood on the sand, a mother with blood stained rear flippers and a skinny, furry pup nearby hiding in the boulders. It didn’t take long for three turkey vultures to show up and devour the afterbirth in about 5 minutes. The pup and mother were wary of both birds and kept moving away toward the surf.
The instinct of the mother is to get her pup to follow her. They bond and the pup will follow quite diligently. When the pups get older, they follow her in and out of the ocean, practicing their surf launches and landings, learning how to get off the beach quickly, and following her up to nurse on the sand. This new pup followed her toward the surf but when it started getting rolled around in the large waves, all it wanted to do was get back on the beach. The mother was trying to get her pup to follow her but it was no use. The pup was getting rolled up and down the sand and then out to the cove. Wave after wave of white water was separating them and the mother was desperately trying to keep track of her confused young as it was scrambling towards the rocks. It got pushed into a little dead-end boulder pocket at the edge of the beach where there was no safe exit. She followed it in there and waited a while. But then a big wave came in and washed them both back into deeper water, but separately on either side of a large rock.
I didn’t see them together for some time. Then I saw the little pup make it back onto the beach but out on its own, away from the other seals that were nursing and sleeping. It is difficult to identify individual seals but I did see a single adult on the beach that didn’t have a pup with it. It started moving toward the isolated newborn but the seagulls moved in between them and took a keen interest in the pup. Surprisingly, the adult seemed scared of the gulls and didn’t approach the pup any further.
By this time it was getting dark and I went home, wondering when they would reunite. The next morning I went back to the beach and saw another large group of mothers and pups. Most of the pups were looking plump, like they were a couple of weeks old. But there was one that looked skinnier, with longer fur, lying next to its mother. Looks like she found it.
I have to say that witnessing the thrashing this hours-old pup took in the surf zone made me think about how tough these animals have to be and how quickly they have to learn to survive in rough environment.