Portraits of Pinnipeds

Back in the land of the interweb I am faced with putting words to two days that will be among the highlights of my own life. Between storm systems, we made it to San Miguel Island to see the Elephant Seals (and California Sea Lions and Harbor Seals, and possibly Northern Fur Seals but I cannot be sure). San Miguel is one of the most remote Channel Islands, and it is the most regulated in terms of shore access. Home to huge colonies of Pinnipeds of 5 different kinds; it’s a wildlife lover’s dream destination. Hiking is limited on the island without an accompanying Park Ranger. But even if you never set foot on the island itself, it’s worth the effort to get there.

This guy was the one making the most noise and challenging the most mock duels. As the male’s proboscis develops over a period of years as the animal matures, he’s probably the oldest male on this beach. 

For me, arriving at this destination was like entering the Magic Kingdom, or at least, it was like being in an episode of  Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. In other words: a dream come true. Some people would scoff at the idea that seeing a bunch of silly seals, lined up like sugar-spinkled buns on a beach, could be a highlight of an otherwise interesting and fulfilling life. But those are people who do not know me very well. Fortunately, Mike is not one of them.

Married to this man for 35 years, he knows my love of wild places and watching animals in their ‘natural habitats’. He joins me in our little games of ‘Wild Kingdom’ where he gets to play Jim Fowler to my Marlin Perkins, or vice versa. We both grew up watching and loving that TV show, among others of the same ilk. Those shows made lasting impressions on our developing psyches. I majored in Animal Behavior and Ecology in my undergraduate education. And while I didn’t end up getting a job in that field (Hello, Reagan years.) I have never lost my sense of wonder and love for wild creatures. For me, this cruising trip is about seeing wildlife; as much and as often as possible. I enjoy the towns and cities, but it’s  wildlife, not nightlife, that I’m really after.

These sweet faces!

We arrived at San Miguel in the early afternoon and dropped anchor in Cuyler Cove, right next to a beach with Elephant Seals!*  I could hear them grunting and calling and watch the young males jousting with each other, practicing for the day when they would challenge other males for the privileges only a dominant male can earn. Here’s a note from my cruising log:

Anchored in 15 feet of clear green water in Cuyler Cove, the beach is home to Elephant Seals! We easily watch them sparring with one another and hear their gutteral grunts from the cockpit of the boat. The adolescent males, almost adults, pair off and spar, practicing for when they are old enough to mate. So interesting to notice the insides of their mouths are blood red, even though no blood has been spilled. 

Today we got here just as the sight seeing boat was leaving. “Three Hour Tour, Time to Board! Three Hour Tour, Time to Board!” was broadcast through the anchorage. They were quickly gone and we have the entire cove to ourselves. Just us and the seals! I look forward to sleeping to the sounds of their growly voices through the open hatch. Why would anyone ever want to miss this? It’s spectacular. 

If you had asked me 10 years ago if I would ever be watching elephant seals spar from my own boat at San Miguel Island I would have laughed. Who’s laughing now? A warm wind is blowing 10-15 knots and I lay wrapped in a light blanket in the cockpit, listening to grunting seals and watching zillions of stars. It’s still fairly early in the evening and it occurs to me that even in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, to see this many stars you have to be up in the middle of the night. What a change a change in latitude brings. The peaceful rocking of the boat, complete darkness of the land, and brilliance of the stars; unspeakable.”

Who will win the coming contest?

This face!

These are all photos taken from the dinghy of the seals on the beach close by where we are anchored. I could have watched these guys all day long. By the time we left, I felt like I was getting to know their individual personalities.

More on the Pinnipeds of San Miguel in the next post. S/V Galapagos, out.



*Elephant Seals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In addition, San Miguel Island has special closures during certain times of the year to protect the breeding habits of the species that use those grounds. Between April 30 and October 1, boating is restricted to 300 yards from shore. During our time there, it was restricted the usual 100 yards. We stayed more than 100 yards offshore, even in our dinghy. All photos are taken with a telephoto lens, then cropped to get a closer look.





14 thoughts on “Portraits of Pinnipeds

  1. Great photos! Did you ever read “San Miguel” by T.C. Boyle? If not, it is a great read, about the history of the families who have lived there over the years (historical fiction, but with a lot of latitude for the details.) Enjoy the rest of your trip down the coast.

    • That show influenced an entire generation of wildlife lovers. I went to school with a kinsman of Jim Fowler’s. He went into zoology as well. It’s in the blood I guess.

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