At one point in human history the best source of nighttime light came from whale oil.
Few things were more difficult, dangerous and time-consuming to obtain. Whaling voyages often lasted multiple years and a large percentage of whaling ships were eventually lost at sea. Living in an age where we take nighttime lighting for granted, using whale oil for light will never cease to amaze me. As the 1800s progressed and the world's population of whales grew smaller and smaller, so seal blubber became a less expensive alternative for light.
Many seal species were hunted nearly to extinction.
One of these was the northern elephant seal, easily identified by the elongated elephant-like nose found on males. By 1910, less than 100 of these seals were still alive. The population has rebounded amazingly since the seal gained protection; current estimates place it at 150,000 or more.
From December through February, elephant seals come ashore to give birth, wean their newborn pups, and mate. The older, stronger and larger males fight to establish territories and form harems of females.
The fighting can be extremely brutal and many of the older males carry dramatic scars. During these competitions, they use their elongated noses to make threating sounds. Males may weigh up to 4,500 pounds -- more than the average four-door car.
A quick look at a beach might only reveal a scattered collection of fat seals lazily enjoying the sun. Stick around for a few minutes, however, and you'll see some action. Fights are common and fierce. The seals can move surprisingly fast for short distances on land.
Pups are born and weaned in less than a month. They gain 10 pounds a day, feeding off a mother who fasts during the entire time her colony is on land. There's always something to see if you have a bit of patience. If you bring a camera with a zoom lens you'll be ready to capture exciting action shots.
Though colonies come ashore along the Pacific Coast from Mexico to Canada, they tend to favor islands. Luckily, the two best places to see them on the mainland are relatively close to home. Taking a day trip to learn about these amazing creatures is a great way to spend part of a winter weekend.
As the elephant seal population began to recover, this is the first place in California where a colony established a winter home on the mainland. Located between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, there are daily ranger-led tours. The tours take hikers close to the seals. Over the course of about 2½ hours, groups walk about three miles over the sand and bluffs to view and learn about the seals. Reservations are a must because these tours are extremely popular.
The other place to see the seals is at Piedras Blancas, 12 miles north of Cambria on Highway 1. This is a new and large colony. It began to establish itself 22 years ago. At Piedras Blancas you simply park in the large parking area and take a short walk to the edge of the bluff. The seals are directly below you on the beach. You can visit the seals anytime during daylight hours and stay as long as you want.
Adam Blauert can be reached at email@example.com