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Memories of Piedras Blancas

Northern Elephant Seal - Mirounga angustirostris
Resting up at Piedras Blancas, on the Coast of Central California.

Like Morro Bay’s otters, Piedras Blancas has its own mammalian attractions: the Northern Elephant Seal. From the time of their discovery by European profiteering mariners, these animals were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands for the oil derived from their blubber. Thought to be extinct in 1884, a remnant population of eight individuals was discovered on Guadalupe Island in 1892 by a Smithsonian expedition. So what did these geniuses do? They killed seven of the eight for their collections. Scientists believe at this point in time there were only 20-100 of these creatures left on the planet. In 1922 a group of 264 were discovered on Guadalupe Island in Baja California. Plans by museums to form collection expeditions were being made, but the Mexican government passed laws to protect the seals, and stationed a small military post on the island to enforce the new protective measures.

Since then their numbers have increased. In California, the population is continuing to grow at around 6% per year. At Año Nuevo State Park, for example, no individuals were observed until 1955. The first pup born there was observed in 1961. The growth of the Piedras Blancas colony has proved even more spectacular; no animals were found there prior to 1980, and the first recorded birth was 1992. Today the site hosts more breeding animals than Año Nuevo State Park during the winter season.

Given that the total present day population stems from such a small group (estimates vary from 20 to 100 individuals), science is concerned these surviving members may be vulnerable to disease because of the limited gene-pool.

I discovered Piedras Blancas in December 2000 and I’ve visited five more times since then (January 2002, December 2003, June 2015, September 2017, and July 2019). While most visitors come for the spectacle of the Elephant Seals, I like to keep my eyes open for birds. On December 20, 2003 I found a Scissor-Tailed Flycatcher here and submitted photos to Cal-Poly (California Polytechnic State University) to help document perhaps the second or third record for California. Black Oystercatchers are a common sight along the central California coast and I look forward to meetings with them whenever I’m in the region. Most of the White-Crowned Sparrows found here will be the non-migratory Nuttall’s subspecies, which may interest some birding enthusiasts. Turnstones and Whimbrels frequent this rocky coastline. Exotic gulls such as the Mew Gull may sail by. Heermann’s and Western Gulls are regular visitors here.

The gallery below displays some of my favorite images from this remarkable place.

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