Elephant Seal Pup Rescue


A volunteer with the Marine Mammal Center rescues a helpless elephant seal pup stranded on the beach between a rock and a sharky place.

by Doug Ross

Feb. 5, 2016—This is supposed to be the slow season for the Marine Mammal Center; there aren’t supposed to be any seal pup strandings yet. It is a well-deserved rest for volunteers, as last year broke all records with more than 1,800 marine mammals rescued by TMMC alone.

So I was surprised when I got a call last week about an elephant seal pup stranded on a beach north of Santa Cruz. I had just toured Año Nuevo State Reserve two days before. We saw males fighting, bigger males with their harems, and moms nursing newborn pups. The pups were—and remain—nowhere near being ready to leave their moms.

The location the pup was reported in is remote, halfway between Greyhound Rock County Beach and Waddell State Beach. I took a moment to choose the right access path. The wrong choice would result in too much effort and possibly failing to rescue the pup. Greyhound Rock has a steep mile-long access path, but it is paved. If I took that route, though, I would still have to trek across sandy beach a mile north to the pup. The Waddell parking lot is level with the beach, but again, I would have to hike in sand more than a mile south to the pup.

I chose a third route: the private dirt road across from Big Creek Lumber. This access is only a quarter-mile hike to where I expected the pup to be based on the report. The road is gated and restricted access, but I have gotten permission to use it before. Sometimes it is drivable, but not this time. I lashed an animal crate to a wheeled dolly and set off down the steep dirt road on foot. The El Niño weather has saturated the ground, and I found that the road was sliding away at one point, leaving big cracks in the earth. Glad I didn’t try to drive it. At another point a small landslide had left a 5-foot-high hill of rough dirt and rocks. I had to climb over this and wondered how I would make the return trip with an animal in the crate.

Read about the author's marine mammal-themed art show at the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Exploration Center on Feb. 5, 2016.

The beach was rocky – not the easiest thing to roll the cart on. I met an old guy who said he had seen the pup just 30 yards south of a waterfall. The waterfall was beautiful. Later I looked it up on Google. It’s called Arroyo Las Trancas (there is a very interesting history to this name. To summarize, this creek marks the northern boundary of a Mexican land grant deeded in 1843).

I walked over to where the pup should be and only saw it when I got real close. It was jet-black, a full-on black-coated newborn pup. My first rescue in 2002 was an elephant seal, and I have probably picked up about 100 of them over the last 14 years, but this is the first time I have found a stranded one that is fully black, from its nose to the tips of its back flippers. She must have gotten washed off the rookery beach by the big waves we’ve been having lately. It’s no accident that this is Great White Shark season – they migrate to this area at this time of year because the seal pups are easy prey. Fat and gentle, they can barely swim at this age and they don’t even have teeth yet. When winter storms sweep them off the beach, they’re an easy snack for the sharks.

It must have been rough on this little grom to make it through the gauntlet of men in grey suits. To land on this beach with 10-foot shore breaks in one piece is a minor miracle.

I was glad I’d come for this pup. After gently loading it into the crate, I began the not-so-gentle trundle across the rocks. When I got to the landslide over the steep trail up the cliff I took a moment to catch my breath. That was when the second miracle happened: three tall fit dudes in black showed up on the beach 20 feet below. I don’t even care what brought them to this location, I just asked for help and got it. In no time I was over the worst part and up the trail back to the truck. It was actually a good workout, pulling a 75-pound seal up a 500-foot cliff. You should try it.

The black-coat pup got named Grey Louie (I didn’t name her) and was transferred to the main Marine Mammal Center hospital in the Marin Headlands near Sausalito the next day. We expect her to be released in about two months after she grows some teeth and learns to eat fish.

Doug Ross is an artist, illustrator and sea mammal rescue volunteer who lives and works in Santa Cruz.


Field Notes

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Very young elephant seals can be found this time of year as far south as New Brighton State Beach. They often show up at the beaches at Wilder Ranch State Park.

Seeing them is very special. Program your phones to call the Marine Mammal Center.


Good point, WilderFan.

If you see a distressed marine mammal, call 415.289.SEAL. Don't try to rescue it yourself! Just call the number and sit tight.