Adults gather along the upper shoreline of the sandy beach at Bowman Bay sharing stories about their baby’s significant skills, including frolicking, blowing bubbles, and…swimming. It seems like any seaside dotted with doting parents and their children, but it’s not…quite. The “parents” are members of the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network (MMSN) and the (lone) baby is a 230-pound male elephant seal pup named Emerson. “Stranding Networks respond to dead and live strandings of marine mammals on the beach. Volunteer stranding networks were established in all coastal states and are authorized through Letters of Authority from the National Marine Fisheries Service…[which] oversees, coordinates, and authorizes these activities and provides training to personnel.”
On February 28, just two days after Elsie Mae had finished weaning her one-month-old elephant seal pup and left him on his own, I stopped by Bowman Bay at Deception Pass State Park in hopes of encountering Emerson. A cold drizzle fell. Conspicuous signs at the entrance to and within the park indicated that pets were not allowed to prevent potentially dangerous interactions between them and the elephant seal pup; that “Elephant Seals are protected under the federal, Marine Mammal Protection Act;” and that they are “wild, unpredictable and potentially dangerous animals that can cause serious injuries.” I headed towards the beach where a woman dressed in rain gear, though seemingly oblivious to the inclement weather, scrutinized the area near the abutment of the old wooden dock. As I neared, an MMSN volunteer named Marlene pointed out Emerson, who was flopping around in the water about 150 yards from our vantage point. “He’s teaching himself to swim,” she crowed. While he splashed, she rapid-fired facts about these amazing creatures from memory. Half an hour later, I left the park with a new appreciation for elephant seals and the members of the stranding network who dedicated hours of their time to keeping an eye on Emerson and members of the general public informed about these pinnipeds. “The word “pinniped” means fin- or flipper-footed and refers to the marine mammals that have front and rear flippers. This group includes seals, sea lions and walruses — animals that live in the ocean but are able to come on land for long periods of time.”
Like most elephant seal pups, Emerson was born in the winter, but unlike any other in modern history, he was born on Fidalgo Island. His mother, a well-known local, is Elsie Mae.
Ellie the Elephant Seal’s Known Descendants Information from the Orca Stranding Network Newsletter Issues #2, #3, #4 and #5
During the past several years, Elsie Mae has shown a curiosity for humans, spending time near the Skyline community in Anacortes, and even making her way to a local landmark: Old Salt’s Deli and Market near the Skyline Marina, which is where Marlene first laid eyes on her. Since her original sighting, Elsie Mae has returned to the area several times to haul out and molt. According to elephantseal.org, the purpose of this process for seals is to rid their bodies of the skin that may hold parasites that are detrimental to their health. While they are molting, they fast, so they must survive on the fat they’ve accumulated during the preceding months. There are different levels of molts. Some just rid the seal of their fur, others, their skin as well.
On March 28, nearly a month after my first encounter with Emerson, I returned to Bowman Bay to check on the two-months-old weanling. Several on duty volunteers and an off duty couple, Sally and Carl, were abuzz with the latest news about him. Carl, a retired biologist, led me to the best viewing spot and pointed out the two-month-old elephant seal. Sally approached, answered my questions and offered facts about elephant seals in general and Emerson in particular. She shared her concern that because he wasn’t born at a rookery where other elephant seals could teach him to swim, he’d have to learn this vital skill himself. She also told me about the largest rookery of Northern Elephant seals like Emerson: Piedras Blancas in southern California (Their website includes two live beach cameras).
The California Department of Parks and Recreation Website includes an explanation about weanlings, “When the weaned pups are four to six weeks old, their original coat of black fur molts and is replaced by a shiny new silver coat. Soon afterward, they begin learning to swim in the shallow offshore waters or in ponds formed by rainwater…they learn quickly, spend more and more time swimming about, and then, during the last three weeks of April, they go to sea one by one and disperse northwestward. They feed off the coast of northern Washington and Vancouver Island in British Columbia and do not appear on land again until September.”
According to Earthguide, “Northern elephant seals travel into the North Pacific twice a year, in a pattern called a double migration. They go to forage and build up energy reserves that allow land-based activities while fasting for 2-4 months. Males and females travel to different hunting grounds and dine on different prey, perhaps to meet differing dietary needs.”
On April 30, when I arrived at Bowman Bay to check on three-months-old Emerson, much of the parking lot was cordoned off because volunteers from the Stranding Network were preparing to move him to a secret location (since rumored to be Smith Island). The Anacortes American reported, “Volunteers were essential in keeping humans away from the young elephant seal while he was at Bowman Bay, especially as between 200 and 400 people visited the park on sunny days,” and “Since his birth, about 25 volunteers spent 1,567 hours looking after him and keeping people away as he started his life.” After four months of acting as Emerson’s guardians, it was time for the volunteers to send him out into the world to face the future on his own, well aware of the fact that only “50% survive their first year.”