At 7:00, I tell Bruce that if we want to see Big Sur, we had better get going. My plan is to drive north out of the fog and into the sun. We leave Moonstone Beach and about ten minutes later we have entered Hearst’s Maxfield Parrish fairy tale domain and I spot a sign that, for all my years in California, I had never noticed.
It’s the California Elephant Seal Rookery. “Should we stop?” I ask. I needn’t have, but we were just getting to know each other.
We walk toward the rocky, low beach. Below us is a small cove rough with black volcanic rocks circling smooth, tawny sand. Lying in the sand is a hideous, grunting, scarred behemoth. A 5,000 pound male elephant seal. His snorts and exhalations are gruesome yet wondrous.
The surf ebbs and flows, the water glittering bright green-blue in the early morning light. Out of the surf emerges a creature with a lovely face and large, soft brown eyes. This is followed by a sleek-furred, round body. She is the mate to the grunting, farting elephant-snouted monster breathing raggedly by the rocks at the edge of the cove.
Bruce looks at me and I at him. We’ve known couples like this. A beautiful delicate female mated to a brutish beast.
“It looks like he’s about to tell her, ‘bring me a sammich, bitch,'” I say.
Bruce agrees, and we start a tete-a-tete about this mismatched pair. The female elephant seal works her way slowly up the beach to the side of her massive mate, heaving her body from side to side in the wet sand. The word “rookery” echoes in my mind. I wonder if she’s pregnant, but I say nothing.
We decide to walk farther south down the boardwalk, and soon realize, this single pair is by far the outlier. On the beach are hundreds of elephant seals, from a distance appearing like gray and brown beach umbrellas scattered along the shore. Here and there are small dark forms squirming in the sand like tiny leeches: the pups.
Up close, the faces of the pups appear exactly like pit bull puppies. The females are a vast array of shapes, sea colors and sizes. Most of the males are scarred fur-covered torpedoes like the massive beast from the small cove.
We see just one other couple, a serious-appearing pair with a tripod and massive camera with a telephoto lens focused on the beach. We pass them and watch a large group of females and pups, with the males arrayed closer to us along the beach, sunning their vast bulk and lying in a row like hideous fat cigars.
At once, about twenty seagulls converge on the beach, shrieking and jabbing their wicked beaks at something. I think that perhaps one of the seals has some fish and they’re grabbing for it, but say nothing. It’s cool and Bruce has his hand around my waist, the newness of this a shivering pleasure.
The moment is snapped like celery by the sudden appearance of a fifty-five-ish blonde woman with a severe haircut, wearing khakis and a dorky blue windbreaker, who rises behind Bruce’s shoulder. “They’re after the afterbirth,” she says, grinning.
Bruce’s eyes flash, but he merely smiles.
“I’m a volunteer docent,” she says. “You’ve just witnessed something people come here for years to see. Usually they give birth at night.”
“Oh,” I say, “Wonderful.” Bruce’s eyes say something very different.
On the beach, the mother seal is circling her darling black pup desperately. I see a spot of blood on her flank, but no sign of afterbirth. A perfect sand circle has emerged and she’s energetically digging it deeper amid the flock of shrieking, fiendish gulls.
“They’ll peck at anything bright,” Volunteer Docent Woman says. “They want to peck the pup’s eyes. She’s protecting him.”
Her eyes shine like bright pale blue crazy pennies. I remember the mismatched couple from the cove we’d seen before, and tell her about them.
“Oh that cove floods. They can’t be there,” she said.
“Well, we did see them,” I say. She’s as certain of her facts as Dr. Quest in a Jonny Quest episode. She mutters a few more things, then directs her attention to the couple with the telephoto lens: they’re the experts. On the beach, the elephant seal mother continues to circle round her beautiful sleek black pup while the males grunt and fart in the sun.
As we continue down the boardwalk, we talk about Volunteer Docent. She had appeared out of nowhere, a frenetic jack-in-the-box stuffed with natural history and expertise, wedded not to human life, but to these massive animals by the shore.
Bruce says, “I thought she was going to demand that I leap down on the beach and bag and tag the afterbirth.”
“She liked you better than me,” he says. Likely; however the seals, she liked best of all and moreso, perhaps a massive orca waited offshore to take her true love.
We get back in the Jeep and head up the coast to Big Sur. While we sun ourselves on a high patio overlooking God’s country, a burned-out hippie asks Bruce, who is wearing a Longhorns t-shirt, “Are you from Texas?”
Of course he is. Philly, Texas.
In quiet moments, I remember the exquisite face of the female elephant seal, about to give birth. She’s far too lovely to bring that monster a sammich.