The belching, screeching, wailing sounds filled the air of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito Friday. Visitors snickered at the rude blasts bounding across the concrete pens where dozens of elephant seal pups were recuperating.
The sounds are a boisterously audible sign that the elephant seal breeding season is underway. Inside the checkerboard of fenced-in pens, elephant seals napped, swam and warbled away the hours, all under the watchful eye of veterinarians and volunteers.
Elephant seals normally give birth around late December to early January. After a six-week bonding period the mothers head-out, leaving the youngsters to fend for themselves. Some of those who can’t, end up here.
"It means we’re pretty busy and we’ve got a lot of mouths to feed," said Jim Oswald, a spokesman for the Marine Mammal Center.
While this time of year is normally busy for the center, this year is especially so. The center currently has 64 elephant seals, about double what it saw by this time last year. The elephant seals come in malnourished and often sick. Between now and June, they’ll eat about 40,000 pounds of fish.
"From about the end of February through June, when you come to the Marine Mammal Center, you will see and hear these guys,” said Oswald.
Vets aren’t exactly sure what’s causing the spike in numbers. One theory is that last year’s stormy winter left fewer survivors for the center to rescue. As it is, Oswald said only about 50 to 55 percent of the patients coming in will make it back to the wild.
"We just finished weighing seven that came in from San Luis Obispo this morning," said volunteer Harriet Hutchinson. "We’re very busy."
The survivors will be nursed back to health on a healthy dose of fish. In addition to feeding the patients, the veterinarians will also teach them how to catch fish for themselves.
Soon after they’re up to the task, they’re released back into the wild, taking with them their loud and unruly version of nature’s song.