Piedras Blanca

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“It looks like rain,” says my companion glumly.
The road has brought us down from California’s ‘Big Sur’ to this gentler rolling coastline. But why the barbed wire fencing? I wonder. Why these ‘no parking’ signs? What are they trying to hide from us? On ‘Big Sur’ we had ‘vista points’ to enable us to stop and view the craggy cliffs that overlook the white surf crashing on the rocks below. But now that the road is safer, easier, we are not allowed stop.
A few cars are parked though, and we pass a Highway Patrol car that has stopped too. The patrolman is noting car numbers.
We round a bend and I look across to a beach where there are what appear to be smooth rocks scattered across the sand.
“Stop!” I shout to my companion who, quite rightly, is concentrating on his driving. “Seals!” I add by way of explanation.
I have read in my guidebook that elephant seals come to this part of the coast to rest, to moult and to breed. I had hope we might see them, but I know from experience that wildlife does not always read the same guide books as me.
My companion slows the car. “I can’t park here,” he says, looking at the signs and the barbed wire.
“Turn round and go back,” I suggest.
He does a three point turn and drives back past where there the patrol man is now talking to one of the illegal drivers. We continue to a sign saying ‘Piedras Blancas’. The low building might in summer be a shop or restaurant, but now in January it looks unoccupied. We can park here and there is a footpath indicating ‘beach’.
“It’s raining,” I say as we get out. The sky has darkened.
By the beach is uniformed ranger in a truck. He tells us, yes it’s okay to look, but we must keep our distance.
The elephant seals lie supine, their bulk spreading, heavy and cumbersome, on the sand.
We stand and watch.
There are huge bulls with the ugly pendulous noses that give the species its name. They posture and threaten, opening their mouths and throwing back their heads to fill the air with a cacophony of barks and roars. They rear up to crash their weight, one against another, blubber vibrating in waves with every movement.
There are females lying alongside their pups whose dark pelts contrast with those of their parents. Most are suckling, but I fix on one lone infant, who barks anxiously for its mother.
My companion clicks his camera.
Gulls wheel and dip overhead. Waiting and hoping for what? Another afterbirth? A dead pup?
The rain is pounding now. My companion tucks his camera under his jacket. “We’d better go,” he says.
I don’t want to leave this extraordinary annual event that I feel so privileged to be witnessing. “I don’t mind,” I say as the water runs down my neck.
Neither, I think, do the seals.

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