Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Elephant Seals Who Bring Winter & Rest

A few weeks ago now, the northern elephant seals arrived for the winter. I like to imagine them bringing the spirit of winter with them on their backs as they arrive, the females first to give birth to tiny dark babies, then the males, to fight and to find mates. I like to imagine that the seasons are carried in the bodies of animals as much as the bodies of planets and stars. As this broad fellow above, who has taken possession of the only flat, warm surface on the beach, trumpets his dominance to the other males, perhaps he is also trumpeting to the windy soul of winter.

I went on a pilgrimage of sorts, with my love, my brother and one of his friends, to see them where they rested (and rest still) on the beaches near Chimney Rock, on the edge of Point Reyes. 

Out at the hammerhead headlands of Point Reyes (which from a birds-eye view looks like the nose of an elephant seal!), much of the land is grazed by dairy and meat cows, so it is very green. Astounding, bright, life-giving green. If I were a deer, like this crooked-eared doe, this grass would be dessert.

The elephant seals rested in clusters along the beach. It is hard to see here, but the tight bunch in the middle I believe was comprised largely of new mothers-- each one had a tiny, dark, rumpled baby next to her, all of them mewling and hooting loudly. Their skins still looked too big for their bodies, wrinkled as wet velvet.

When they come to shore, they do not eat or drink for the duration, and so  must rest deeply as they nurse, shed skin, court. For them, these winter shores are truly the place and the time to go deeply and darkly in, using up fat reserves and all their last shreds of strength to raise babies to maturity, to find lovers, to set forth again.

I love their strange long trunk noses, their dark eyes, their utter release into sleep.

There is something so sweet and wise and ancient in that resting face, like he knows all the stories of the deep sea, where he and no other seal can dive, spiraling down and down in search of squid, octopi, profound and salty darkness. I wonder what he has seen, how far under he has gone.

We came across that sleeping bunch down by the old Life Saving Station, where men were trained to come to the rescue of shipwrecked sailors. During the early 20th century, when the station was built and heavily used, elephant seals were almost extinct, having been so over-hunted for the oil in their blubber, which was used in lamps, among other machinery and soaps. The population has since rebounded, but it is believed that all northern elephant seals alive today are descendants of the scant 100 individuals left in the mid-1900's. A great big family of them migrate up and down the Pacific coast, from Baja to the Aleutian islands, just like the Point Reyes peninsula itself, which will one day end up in the Aleutian trench, molten.

I don't know who lived here once, or who lives here now-- Park Rangers, I imagine. Whatever the stories, these are houses perched at the edge of the continent, deep in the fog and the wind, howling with the ghosts of hunted herds of elephant seals, lost sailors, lonely milkmaids, all the Coast Miwok men and women who wandered here before.

Here are a few scraps of footage of those dreaming elephant seal bulls, their testy competitions, and the harem of mothers and babes sleeping on the beach around the corner. Their hooting, croaking voices come from somewhere other and wild, singing of all the dark mysteries of the world, of the winter, and of birth. (Apologies for my shaky hand! This is a very home made little video...)


  1. " he knows all the stories of the deep sea, where he and no other seal can dive, spiraling down and down in search of squid, octopi, profound and salty darkness. I wonder what he has seen, how far under he has gone."


  2. This is truly otherworldly. Also, thank you. It's beautiful to be able to awake in the morning with all the sirens and honks of New York and blast their croaking gut music and purring in my room on full volume, along with the wind and sea. What better way to drown out a bit of city than an elephant seal song?!