Sea lavender (known as Statis) blooms all along the bluffs in La Jolla in February. The landscape of lavender flowers with an aqua sea is always a palette of nature that makes my heart sing. Coastal fog rushes in sometimes so quickly that one moment the sun is there & within a minute or two I can’t even see the reef rocks offshore. .The sea has a voice of whitecaps and gigantic waves in winter high tides. These are days for me to wear a heavy jacket and gloves to the beach.
In San Diego winter, the California Brown Pelicans have moved their La Jolla Cove roosting spot to different bluffs that catch the warmth of the morning sun. These bluffs are also protected from high tide waves & chilly winds blowing in from the ocean. There are hundreds of pelicans roosting here grooming & sleeping in the sun with their blue eyes watching me as I stand close by. I watch these dinosaur birds spread their wings to lift off and fly out to sea or to fly down to take a sea bath nearby when the tide is low. On the bluff the pelicans lift their heads to the sky & stretch their pouches in an “I can’t believe-my-eyes” moment. Pelicans arriving to the bluff brake for a landing & somehow find a spot among the crowd to rest. One day there are two gorgeous Snowy egrets sheltering on the bluff, too. The Snowy Egrets sleep regally standing on one leg with the other leg lifted up and their bright yellow foot folded up like some origami of nature. As always sea lion families sleep on the beach at the Cove now. I happily watch them swimming in the waves.
Spending time in February in La Jolla gives people the opportunity to view Harbor seals giving birth to their pups & nursing them in peace on Casa Beach. As long as people respect the beach closure, the beach will only be covered in a carpet of sea gull prints and the sand trails left by the seal’s bodies & flippers. Most Harbor seal births occur early in the morning or after sunset, which means that this is the time I try to be there. I have been fortunate enough to view this birth cycle for 5 years now and the birth of a pup never gets any less exciting or beautiful. I hold my breath as the mother goes into labor & the pup emerges. Will the pup be born full-term & healthy or will the harbor seal mother, knowing something I cannot, abandon her pup? It is the circle of life that is both joyous & heartbreaking on any given day. Until the pupping season is really in full swing the mostly pre-mature births in January & early February can be heart wrenching.
The sea gulls are an integral part of this Harbor seal pupping cycle, too. When a seal goes into labor & has a tiny discharge, the gulls must smell it because they immediately gather around & wait for the birth. Sometimes a gathering of gulls on the beach lets everyone know that a birth is pending. Nature has designed the gulls to be the clean-up crew after a birth & they eat the afterbirth. As soon as the pup is born, the gulls will creep up on the mother to steal the afterbirth in their beaks. The gulls fly up in a white hailstorm of gull feathers, fighting & squawking over who will get this choice meal. It is like nature throwing white feathered confetti in the air to celebrate the birth of a seal pup. The sea gulls job also has a dark side. They are the vultures of the coast. One day there is a tiny white seal pup that has been abandoned by its mother & left to die. The pre-mature born pup cannot survive on its own for long, but it is gruesome to observe the sea gulls doing their macabre death dance of walking up & pecking, pecking waiting for the pup to die, consuming it while it is still alive. Observing the cycle of nature here is not for the faint of heart. This is a closed seal rookery beach and nature must run its course. My heart is breaking & I am grief struck. I walk away from the beach and collapse on a bench without a view of the seals. I am reeling from the cruelty of life. I am praying for this seal pup to die quickly. I am devastated. A seagull flies up & perches on a nearby fence post. The gull has a severely broken leg with a bone several inches long jutting out. The gull is clearly in pain. I look at the gull & the gull looks at me. The gull seems to say to me “We are all just trying to survive.” I cry out at the truth of it. Life is this way. We are all just trying to survive even if we humans sometimes seem to forget this. I go home with a heavy heart. A week later I am at the beach & the gull flies up again to this fence post. I see that the bone has broken off. The gull’s leg is twisted & the foot is clenched up and a bit shriveled. This gull will survive with one leg. It is a lesson that the job of nature is that only the strongest will survive. As time goes by, I see this gull again and this time the leg has a distinct twist to it, but the gull now can put weight on the foot. Every time I see this gull we lock eyes on each other. I think we took this journey together somehow. This gull’s twisted leg will be like a badge of the courage of his survival. All who see this gull will see the result of that struggle. To survive in this life of ours is tough for all of us whether we are seals or gulls or humans. We all wear badges of the courage of our survival. Some of our badges are obvious and some are hidden, but we all have badges of courage.
Thankfully now at the end of February the pups we see are successful full-term births. The few abandonments we see may be because the harbor seal mom didn’t have milk to nurse her pup. We watch as the healthy full-term pups enter this world & the seal moms turn to touch her nose to her pup’s nose to welcome her pup to this world with joy & love.
Harbor seal pups can swim instantly after birth & sometimes the mom immediately takes her pup into the sea. This is a good thing because the smell of blood from the birth will be gone & the gulls will lose interest. In the first weeks of a pup’s life thought the mom will need to be diligent to protect her pup from the gulls. Gulls love to snack on the little pink umbilical cord they pull from the pups.
Watching a pup nurse for the first time is a breathtaking moment. The mom uses her front flipper to push the pup’s head to her teats to encourage the pup to nurse. The harbor seal’s breast milk is thick & rich with nutrients. The pups only nurse for 9 – 12 weeks, but in that brief time they will grow quickly into fat little seal pups. The pups spend their days nursing, swimming & napping with the mom close by at all times. Only as the pup gets a little bit older will the mom leave without her pup to go fishing. It is critical for humans to stay far away from the pups because if the mother is frightened away, she may not return for her pup and an un-weaned pup cannot survive without its mother.
It is always a delight to watch the tiny pups swim with their moms. Sometimes the mom & pup have been out to sea and when they arrive back to the beach, the pup is riding on the mom’s back! Pups swimming close to the beach at low tide swim playfully. Champagne Pool behind the seawall at low tide is the perfect place for pups to safely swim. Here the Harbor seal moms can float on the sea & take a quick cat nap while keeping a watchful eye on her pup. The pups swim around practicing their floating, too. The pups are very playful & occasionally the bright orange Garibaldi fish will appear out in the open because a pup has chased the fish out from under the protective kelp. Who knew that Garibaldi fish were harbor seal pup toys? The pups find loose pieces of kelp & will carry them around in their mouths, too. All the while, mom is floating nearby snoozing with one eye open. If a pup zooms away or the tide comes in & the pup is carried off, the mom is immediately right behind her pup to watch over him. When the pup realizes mom is out of sight, the pup calls for her. Mom & pup frequently touch noses. The harbor seal mom reassures her pup, yes, you’re okay, yes, I am here. Here at Champagne Pool the harbor seal moms can teach their pups how to climb up onto the reef rocks at low tide. A pup receives a lot of lessons how to survive during this brief time of nursing. Once the pups are weaned, mom doesn’t have anything to do with her pup anymore.
These short weeks of nursing a pup will pass quickly. I try to be at the beach several times a week to enjoy the births & the darling little pups. One day at low tide the waves roll in & out between the reef rocks & the beach. A harbor seal mom & pup float in this safe area & the surge of the waves gently moves the mom & pup into the shore & out to the sea over & over again in a sea lullaby. Watching the seal pups swim like this brings an awareness that seals live in complete harmony with the sea. When the tide is high & the waves are huge, the pups ride on the mom’s back. When the tide is low & the sea is calm, the seals snooze at the shore sung to sleep in a lullaby of lapping waves. Watching the seals live their lives in harmony with the tides, reminds me that I should be living my life gracefully with the cycles of the tides that change in my life, too.