Elephant seals join team V

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

On the sandy shores of south Vandenberg, at the bottom of a rocky cliff, 18 Elephant seal pups lazed in the sun, scarcely two weeks old and already weighing roughly 100 lbs., they nestled close to their much larger mothers. The lounging beasts paid little heed to the harbor seals, who were also sunning themselves on the same remote beach, albeit closer to the ocean. Surrounded on three sides by cliffs, the pinnipeds exuded an air of bliss with little worry of land creatures invading their ocean-side haven.  

Vandenberg has recently become the host to an elephant seal rookery for the first time in several decades.

“This year is the first year, in the last 30 years, that we have detected elephant seal breeding on Vandenberg and that is pretty cool,” said Rhys Evans, 30th Civil Engineer Squadron lead natural resources program manager. “It is a small beach on south base, in an area we monitor once a month, and we saw two weeks ago for the first time five pups. Each female has one pup. It’s a pretty small cove so it is probably only big enough for one or two males. As cool as this is, it also terrifies us sometimes because the two large males battling each other on base could easily take out 20 plover nests without even thinking about it. They are currently on a beach that is completely underwater at high tide, and we hope they stay there.”

Already home to dozens of other species, the most well known of which is the Western Snowy Plover, the VAFB coastline makes an ideal living locale.

“We really only have a few minutes of really loud noise per year and the rest of the time it is silent,” said Evans. “We have been doing the launch mission long enough now that we have seen the local wildlife adjust to the launches and become less bothered by it. We can continue to do our launch mission because we have what is called a Letter of Authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which tells us how we need to monitor the animals. We keep track of our pinnipeds, report our numbers to them and let them know if we find any dead ones. The most common pinniped at Vandenberg is the harbor seal and we have anywhere from 700 to 1000 at any given time. Usually they are just off the coast in the water, but they do come ashore to rest and warm up.”

This isn’t the first time elephant seals have been spotted on Vandenberg beaches, in fact, several hundred males often make a pit stop here in the fall and winter months.

“Elephant seals are less common here, although we usually have several hundred juvenile males here in the fall and early winter, but only juvenile males” said Evans. “They breed on the Channel Islands and a few hundred miles north of here. The males usually weigh around 4500 to 5000 pounds, but they can move fast when they need to. We usually end up with the young ones that lost the battle for a harem so they come down here to lick their wounds and regroup for next year.”

Though the elephant seals on Vandenberg are at a remote location with little to no coast access from land, it is still recommended to steer clear if they happen to wander to one of the more frequented beaches.

“Newly weaned elephant seal pups have been appearing on beaches throughout Santa Barbara County,” said Peter Howorth, Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center director. “These pups are no longer dependent upon their mothers for food. The pups, which are born in winter, are weaned at three to four weeks of age. They remain on the beach to molt, shedding skin and fur alike, for another six to eight weeks. During their extended period on the beach, they fast, so they lose a lot of weight. When the molt is complete, they venture to sea and begin feeding. Sometimes very high tides, heavy surf or storms wash the pups away from the rookery beaches. The pups, which have no fear of humans, come ashore wherever it suits them. They are thin, sometimes breathe laboriously and lie in the sand as if they are dead or dying, causing great concern to beachgoers. The pups only want to be left alone to complete the molting process.”

Marine mammals are protected and should be given a wide berth if encountered on land.

“If you find a marine mammal on the beach, leave it alone,” said Howorth. “Disturbing it in any way, including wetting it down, feeding it or trying to force it back into the water, is a felony. Instead, note the exact location and call the environmental division so qualified personnel can assess the animal and pick it up if necessary. For the safety of the elephant seal pups, they may be relocated to remote beaches, where they can rest undisturbed by humans and dogs.”