Monday, April 30, 2007

Our First Stranded Marine Mammal Call

We received our first post-training Marine Mammal Stranding call on Saturday. Someone reported an injured sea lion on a small point on the west side of Quimper Peninsula. We headed out right away with our clipboard, Marine Mammal Stranding Report Level A Data form, and camera, but found nothing. I called the Marine Science Center and reported seeing no sea lion. Later in the afternoon on Saturday, we received an email that thanked us for our assistance, and told us that the sea lion was in fact seen again. It was able to go back and forth between the water and shore, which seemed like behavior that didn't warrant any further investigation. Oh well, we thought, we missed our first opportunity. C'est la vie.
Early Sunday morning we received another call from the volunteer coordinator. She told me that the animal was not a sea lion, but a juvenile elephant seal. It was not injured but was going through its yearly catastrophic molt. She wanted to know if we could go back and photograph it. I controlled myself and didn't scream an ear-splitting YES directly into the phone.

Before we left the house, we did a bit of elephant seal research online to better familiarize ourselves with the molting process and prepare ourselves for what we were about to see. Here is how the process is described:
Human beings shed hair and skin all the time, but elephant seals go through a catastrophic molt, in which the entire layer of epidermis with the hairs attached is sloughed off in one concentrated time. The reason for this abrupt molt is that while at sea they spend most of their time in cold deep water. As part of the dive process the blood is diverted away from the skin. This helps them conserve energy and avoid losing body heat. By coming up on land to molt the blood can be circulated to the skin so a new layer of epidermis and hair can be grown.
Our own little handout from the local Marine Science Center had this to say:
Elephant Seals come ashore once a year to molt. This natural process takes weeks on the beach to complete. During this time their breathing is irregular, eyes weep, noses run, and the skin looks horrible. This is normal.
We arrived at the beach and some of the locals pointed the seal out to us. It was much closer to the houses and into the driftwood, than we had expected. It was lying there, eyes closed, breathing heavily. Its skin was definitely a mess. If I didn't know better, I too would have assumed it had been in a fight with something. It did lift its head to take notice of us, but our intention was to let it be. So, we snapped a few pics and headed home. Despite looking rather small in the photos, we both guessed this creature was about 6 feet from head to hind limbs. Commonly, bull elephant seals reach a length of 18 ft (5.5 m) and a weight of 5,000 lbs (2,270 kg), which are much larger than the females that usually measure about 10 ft (3 m) in length.

Even though Roger and I lived in Santa Cruz for 15 years, only 25 miles south of Ano Nuevo, home of the largest breeding colony of Northern Elephant Seals in the world, this is the first time we've ever seen one.

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