On February 8th and 9th, 2014, we held a two-day workshop designed to photograph the elephant seals found along the central California coast and to explore Big Sur and surrounding areas. These photos are some of our favorites from the first day spent with the elepahnt seals. It has been a very dry year in California but this particular weekend saw a lot of rain thanks to several closely timed storms systems rolling in off the Pacific, known as the Pineapple Express. Luckily it was not a total washout and we were still able to get some great shots. The sun even peeked through the clouds here and there, giving us a few short-lived opportunities to take photos in beautiful light. Overcast is not a bad thing either though, especially when photographing wildlife. It allowed us to shoot through the middle part of the day when sunlight would normally create very harsh light.
We held the shoot in San Simeon, starting just before sunrise at Piedras Blancas Rookery. The rookery was packed and the action was high. At this time of year, most of the birthing has already taken place and the pups have gorged themselves on their mother's rich milk, making them very plump and ready to be weaned. This was the case with many of the pups in the rookery and in turn some of the females had already started making their departure, leaving their pups to fend for themselves. At this point the pups gather together in small groups called "weaner nurseries" until they are ready to swim. We saw many of these groups of "weaners" scattered along the beach. We photographed several as they engaged in "play fights." Before the females depart, they will mate with the dominant bull in their territory known as a "beachmaster." We saw a lot of this activity and also watched as younger bulls took any opportunity they could to sneak in and mate with a female while the "beachmaster" was distracted. In turn, this led to several fights for dominance, most of which were short lived. We did witness one particularly impressive fight that lasted about five minutes, starting on the beach and ending in the water.
It appeared this little pup's mom may have left too soon or they were separated in some way. We watched as it traveled the beach looking for it's mother. In this image it attempts to nurse off a large bull. Scenes like this can be heartbreaking.
A bull "shows off" to his rivals as he bellows in the early morning cold, a puff of his breath showing with each call.
These two pups are "play fighting" which helps them develop skills they will need later in life. For now though, it's all fun and games.
Squabbles among hungy seagulls occur frequently around the rookery.
This is the same little pup that we showed above that was separated from it's mother. It is just taking a rest here and being investigated by a curious seagull. The gull soon wandered away and left the pup in peace.
The following series if from the lengthy fight for dominance we witnessed between these two well-matched bulls. It was an impressive show.
In the end each had a few new scars to show off but neither was seriously injured and the victor surfed a wave back to shore.
Unfortunately, not all pups make it. This is not the one we have been showing that was separated from it's mother. This one was found on a nearby beach.
Elephant seals boast the richest milk in the mammal world. Even the seagulls try to sneak a taste, much to the displeasure of the mothers.
When bulls engage in dominance battles they don't care who, or what, is in the way. These two bulls took their fight straight through a weaner nursery, running over several in the process. None of the pups were seriously injured in this case.
The pup looking up at the large bull is the same one we have been mentioning throughout this post that was separated from it's mother. By this point which was near the end of the day, it had found a weaner nursery to be a part of. We left knowing that whatever it's fate may be, it at least was not alone and finally seemed content.