See W. N. Bonner, Seals and Man (1982); B. LeBeouf, Elephant Seals (1985); F. Trillmich, ed., Pinnipeds and El Niño (1991).
The Northern Elephant Seal lives in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, migrating as far north as Alaska, British Columbia, and as far south as the shores of California and Baja California, where they come ashore to breed, give birth and molt, mostly on offshore islands. While the pelagic range covers an enormous span, there are only about seven principal breeding areas, four of which are on islands off the coast of California. Recently increasing numbers have been observed in the Gulf of California. Colonies can be observed at Año Nuevo State Reserve, Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, and Morro Bay State Park.
Nevertheless, there is a genetic bottleneck in the existing population, which could make it more susceptible to disease and pollution. In California, the population is continuing to grow at around 25 percent per year, and new colonies are being established; they are now probably limited mostly by the availability of haulout space. However, numbers can be adversely affected by El Niño events and the resultant weather conditions, and the 1997-98 El Niño may have caused the loss of about 80 percent of that year's pups. Presently the Northern elephant seal is protected under the Federal Marine Mammal Act and under California law has a fully protected status.
Populations of rookery sites in California have exploded during the past half-century. At Año Nuevo State Park, for example, there were no individuals observed whatsoever until the 1950s; the first pup born there was observed in the early 1960s. Currently, thousands of pups are born every year at Año Nuevo, on both the island and mainland. The growth of the site near San Simeon has proved even more spectacular; there were no animals there prior to 1990. Currently, the San Simeon site hosts more breeding animals than Año Nuevo State Park during winter season.
In the summer, elephant seals undergo a "catastrophic moult" that lasts about one month, during which they lose much of their fur and skin. They spend this time on beaches to preserve body heat while they wait for the new fur to grow. During this time, elephant seals can be observed at a number of preserves on the California coastline, such as the Año Nuevo State Park and the Point Reyes National Seashore. Observers must have a permit and be very cautious because over short distances bulls can move faster on land than a person can run, despite their ungainly appearance. Elephant seals have no interest in attacking humans but are oblivious to objects blocking attacks on rival males.
The Northern elephant seal returns to its terrestrial breeding ground in December and January, with the bulls arriving first. The bulls haul out on isolated or otherwise protected beaches typically on islands or very remote mainland locations. It is important that these beach areas offer protection from the winter storms and high surf wave action (Riedman, 1982). The bulls engage in dramatic fights of supremacy to determine which few bulls will achieve a territory and harem. While fights are not usually to the death, they are brutal and often with significant bloodshed and injury; however, in many cases of mismatched opponents, the younger, less capable males are simply chased away, often to upland dunes, where they will rest up and contemplate their martial strategy for the next year.
After the males have secured their territorial position on the beach, the females arrive and somehow select an alpha bull for housekeeping. In this polygynous culture, a bull will typically have a harem of 30 to 100 cows. To assist him is the runner up in battle, the beta bull, who typically keeps watch at the perimeter of the harem for any belated challenges to the alpha bull's supremacy. In a lifetime an alpha bull could easily sire over 500 pups, whereas most bulls will never mate, due to the hierarchy established by combat. The lifetime reproduction potential of a female is about ten pups.
After arrival on shore males fast for three months, and females fast for five weeks during mating and nursing of her single pup. The gestation period is approximately eleven months. Pups nurse about four weeks and are weaned abruptly approximately two months before departing on their first journey to sea.