Wreathed in egret-white waves, the rippled hills of the coast glittered in hot light. The sky was a flawless blue, a near match for the glazed and glistening sea. We walked on warm sand, sinking into the smooth sweep of dunes that were slowly on the move, cartwheeling south with the wind and waves towards Monterey Bay, one of the few active dune fields on the Californian coast. Songbirds called out a new season as our docent led us along a winding track towards Point Año Nuevo, a windswept spur of mudstone about 90 kilometres south of San Francisco. The docent stopped us in a saddle of sand to talk about the single species we’d all come to see. Ravens stitched a black weave across the sky as he spoke.
In The Thunder Tree, Robert Michael Pyle asks a question as relevant now as it was when he wrote the book in the early 1990s: “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren.” In the book, Michael Pyle gives voice to an idea he calls the extinction of experience, the cycle of “disaffection and loss that begins with the extinction of hitherto common species, events, and flavours of sensation in our own immediate surrounds.” He takes his childhood in Denver, Colorado as an example: a place where as a boy, and a budding lepidopterist, he came to know and love the natural world while recording an astonishing variety of butterfly species in the city spaces that had held on to the wild. He compares that diverse richness to the impoverished inventory of species which he records later in life after the rampant expansion of the city’s suburbs. Entire species that were common to him as a boy, and provided a way into relationship with the natural world, had completely vanished. As we stood in the hollow of the dunes, listening to the docent describe the fragile history of the species we were about to encounter, I realised that just beyond the ridge, where turkey vultures trailed shadows over the sand, was an animal which for a period of time had been both the condor and wren of Robert Michael Pyle’s analogy: a creature once common to the coast taken to the very edge of extinction, nearly paling into memory.
After nearly two centuries of killing, only a hundred northern elephant seals existed in the entire world by 1922. They were the sole survivors of countless massacres of their kind, when entire sedentary colonies were slaughtered for the oil stored in the animal’s blubber – oil which helped fuel the Gold Rush and rapid expansion of settlement across the American West. Those hundred seals discovered on Guadalupe Island, 150 miles off the coast of Mexico, were declared a protected species by the Mexican government in 1922, a move followed by the United States a few years later. Since then, elephant seal colonies and numbers continue to grow, so that there are around 175,000 – 190,000 present in the world today, all tracing their lineage to a small island in the Pacific, an ancestral relict once common along the coast.
We rose above the dunes, sharp light scattered like glass across the sea. Although it was the end of the breeding season, a number of elephant seals were still sprawled across the shore. Breeding was first recorded at Año Nuevo in 1961 and this year’s pups lay like plump sausages on the sand, occasionally humping forward with the flap of small, wing-like flippers to bask at a new angle. Mothers raise a single pup each year, fattening it with milk so rich her young will gain 150 kilos of weight in less than a month. When they finally push off from land, the young will run the gauntlet of great white sharks in the strait, the primary reason why only 50-60% of them will survive their first year. Until that race across the strait, they’re settled in sunlight and sand beside a few males and females still lingering at the end of the breeding season.
A male rode in like a king coming ashore. We’d seen him in the distance, bobbing and breaching with a twist of white water until he caught a necessary swell. Even the enormous energy of this ocean couldn’t carry him far. A male will weigh between 1800 and 2300 kg when it arrives at the beginning of the breeding season, losing around 500 kg by its finish. This one seemed stranded between worlds: the buoyant blue gloss of sea and the inflexible gravity of shore. The seal reared up in sudden, lumbering movement, a muscled torque of motion that held it steady on its torso. It was sphinx-like at the edge of the sea, gleaming in spray. The long, pendulous nose of its name was now visible as it heaved forward, a blubbery shuffle that brought it another metre onto shore.
Seen here, hauled out and dozing on sand, the elephant seals give little inkling of their oceanic lives and migrations. It is to the sea that they belong, the place where they spend the vast majority of their time, only coming ashore for specific needs. Leaving Año Nuevo after breeding, the females chart a coastal course northwards to Vancouver Island before veering into the deep Pacific, feeding on rays, squid, eels, fish and small sharks. Once far out in the ocean, capable of diving to a depth of 1550 metres and holding their breath for a hundred minutes underwater, they’ll loop southward, boomeranging back to Año Nuevo. The males travel even further, journeying as far north as Alaska where their westward curve follows the sprinkled trail of the Aleutian Islands. They’ll be far closer to Asia than their natal shore when they eventually turn for home, spearing across the deep sea for the Californian coast. As remarkable as these migrations are, long pelagic peregrinations that return them to the precise place of their birthing and breeding, the elephant seals make the journey twice each year: returning not only to breed but also to moult in the summer months before setting off seaward again, following that Pacific sea-path encoded deep in their blood and bones.
The sea-light glittered, caught up in the sway and swell of waves. A few shorebirds hurtled westwards, nicking the rising white crests like skipping stones. The elephant seals basked and rolled at the edge of the water; a dead pup was pecked at by ravens and gulls. There was a strange beauty to being in the presence of such relics – a species descended from a single, remote island. Dependent upon such limited genetic material, there are worries about the future viability of the species and what the evolutionary consequences of descent from that solitary population might be, but for now they flourish on these coastal strands.
As we left the seals to weave back through the dunes, our docent pointed to a slope of sand salted with pale grains. An ancient place in the lee of a ridge, it was a shell midden of the Quiroste people, a group of the Ohlone Indians who had lived here seasonally for 6,000 years – hunting, fishing and gathering abalones and other shellfish from the sea. Like the elephant seals, the Quiroste communities along the coast were part of a living landscape that endured until European contact in the late 1700s decimated their numbers and ways of life. Through forced baptism and settlement in Spanish missions around Santa Cruz, the Quiroste as a people disappeared to nearly nothing. A black oystercatcher whistled from the sea while we stood there, its rising song breaking the spell of sand and shells, leading us back into a day of brilliant, unbroken blue.