Elephant Seal Research Through the Eyes of a New Undergraduate Volunteer

As an incoming transfer student to UC Santa Cruz from inland Southern California, being able to assist with the elephant seal research conducted by the Costa Lab is an extraordinary opportunity. Last week, I had my first day out in the field with the seals; the incredible beauty of watching the sunrise while juveniles played in the waves and sparred each other was also my first introduction to Ano Nuevo State Park .

Sleeping juvenile at Ano Nuevo State Park

Sleeping juvenile at Ano Nuevo State Park

So far this quarter, us new volunteers, have spent our Saturdays at Long Marine Laboratory learning about the elephant seals, proper procedure of collecting data, and the research that is conducted by the lab. During this fall, we are to go out and see what seals we can identify from their existing flipper tags. A seemingly simple task that is astonishingly hard to do. The elephant seal’s flipper itself is a difficult thing to figure out when the animal’s body is slumped upon the beach. On land, the two hind flippers appear as a twisted pile of skin with a short tail protruding through the middle. It’s hard to tell which is right or which is left, let alone between which digit the tag is located. Reading the actual tag is another story. Sometimes it is covered with sand, sometimes it’s at an angle that is impossible to read and sometimes you luck out and it is facing directly at you! Even though we are able to get fairly close to these animals, binoculars are a necessity! Reading these tags and recording these data are important components of the research being done by the Costa Lab. Understanding what the individuals in this population are doing will help to further understand them and their needs and will aid in their conservation.

Weeks of learning about these animals can only do so much to prepare you for being around them. Last week, when I first approach the seals, I thought, “They aren’t as big as I imagined.” But soon, that thought was wiped away as I got closer and saw its enormous body move up and down as it breathed. Its blubbery sides spilling out upon the sand. I won’t forget the first time I approached, for a juvenile flopped it’s head back upon its body with astonishing flexibility; it seemed to fold in half backwards. As it rolled it’s head to its back I was met with large, circular eyes that I felt I could look into them with such intensity I could get lost in the expanse. Their eyes are dark and hauntingly beautiful. The trance of this stare was quickly interrupted by the most peculiar sound I have ever heard an animal make. I looked for the source of this noise, a noise like a giant blowing bubbles through a straw while slightly humming at the same time. It was coming from two seals laying in the shallow waves. They seemed to be chatting while they relaxed and let the waves crash over them. I can say from this brief moment, I was smitten.

We walked along the beach, continuing to identify tagged seals, while also watching the seals play and appreciating the overall abundance of wildlife and scenery of Ano Nuevo. After working our way up the beach, we came to a location that was high in elephant seal activity. As we approached the large group, we spotted an isolated seal that had a large plastic ring stuck around it’s neck. The strong plastic had cut deeply around the seals neck. Luckily, the young seal was found early enough to help. The Marine Mammal Center was called in and we later found out that with a collaborative effort the seal was able to be safely freed from the marine debris, which turned out to be a boat porthole! With the amazing way that these seals can recover from shark attacks and male combat wounds, they say that it is likely that this seal will recover. The experience of my first day in the field with these seals made me captivated by their peculiarity and also made the issue of marine debris personal. It made me upset, but also motivated. There is so much work to be done to mitigate our negative effect on this planet, and we can all play a part of it. The more we understand the world around us, the more we are connected to it and can hopefully change and adapt new ways of cohabitating in a healthy way with the species we have left.


Tamara Russell

Transfer student to UC Santa Cruz majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Interested in climate change impacts on marine mammal and seabird population dynamics.

One Comment:

  1. Thank you, Tamara for your captivating article. I also remember my first trip as a visitor to Ano Nuevo (I was born in Southern California but lived in Santa Cruz for a time) and was also enchanted by the experience.

    Our beleaguered marine mammals need champions such as yourself; so I wish you many years of success and fulfillment in you chosen field.

    Mahalo nui loa.

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