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El Niño puts a damper on elephant seal reunion


Año Nuevo reserve is quiet ... for now

January 2, 1998
Web posted at: 10:56 p.m. EST (0356 GMT)

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- Like the swallows who flock to San Juan Capistrano, elephant seals are regular visitors to the Año Nuevo State Reserve south of San Francisco.

But the mammoth mammals are late this year, and the culprit may be another periodic West Coast visitor, El Niño.

"It looks like they're a little behind because of El Niño," said ranger Gary Strachan. "It's looks like the animals have gone a little farther out to find food. They're about two to two-and-a-half weeks late."

There is some concern that seals who become pregnant this year may have a harder time finding food, which could cause a drop in births next year. Once hunted almost to extinction, there are now thought to be about 150,000 elephant seals in the world.

CNN's Rusty Dornin takes a look at these amazing creatures.
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Visit the seals
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El Niño, of course, is the weather phenomenon which occurs every five to seven years, disrupting weather patterns around the world, causing draughts in normal wet areas and dumping heavy rain and sometimes snows in others.

Waters in San Francisco Bay have been reported to be 5 degrees warmer than normal this year, and the change may have forced the seal's prey -- eels, squid, small sharks, rockfish -- to change their normal routines.

A noisy, mammalian soap opera

Tourists admire the seals  

At the moment, however, females and pups who have arrived are being fiercely protected by the dominant males whose growls, snarls and belligerent posturing speak volumes.

The adult male elephant seal can reach 16 feet long and weigh as much as 5,000 pounds. Females weigh about 2,000 pounds and are seldom much more than 10 feet long.

Although they are believed to be solitary creatures at sea, often diving to depths of 5,000 feet, there is plenty of socializing when they come ashore.

"This is a classic eco tourist attraction," Strachan said. "This is a wildlife park. We put 48,000 people on guided nature walks. We turn away about 35,000 in a three-month period."

Things are fairly calm now, but when the rest of the seals arrive Año Nuevo will become a noisy, mammalian soap opera, full of bellows, battles and mating.

"It's like looking through a window into somebody's living room, into their habitat, and just watching how they live," said one visitor. "It's fascinating."

Correspondent Rusty Dornin contributed to this report.


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