April 1, 2013 -- If you drive down the beautiful coast of central California at the right time of year, you are in for a big surprise. You might spot some ugly, prehistoric-looking beasts sunning themselves and having sex.
But while it may seem like a wild free-for-all, these monstrous animals have existed for roughly three million years and could hold insights into our future survival.
The Ana Nuevo State Park in Portola Valley, Calif., draws frisky elephant seals in mid-winter like Daytona Beach, Fla., draws college kids for spring break. In November, the male elephant seals start arriving on shore and fighting. Those that win all the fights are crowned alpha bulls. The alpha bulls rule harems of around 50 female elephant seals.
The truly vanquished males retreat to what is now known as "Losers' Beach." The beaten but unbowed, so-called sneaker bulls loiter on the fringes of the harems hoping to see some mating action when the alpha seal is distracted.
And humans flock to the state park to gawk at this bizarre ritual.
"We get everything from, 'Huh, they are the ugliest things I've ever seen,' to, 'I really want to take one home,'" said Portola Valley Mayor Ann Wengert.
Mother seals also give birth on the sand. After the pups are born, there is 28 days of intensive suckling on 55-percent-fat milk. Pups grow from 60 pounds to 300 pounds, or roughly from the size of a seventh grader to the size of a linebacker, in less than a month. Then they are abandoned to fend for themselves.
"Nobody has shown them how to survive, how to feed, how to live, how to swim," Wengert said. "They instinctively go to the ocean and begin to hunt and feed or they don't survive."
Instinctively, those pups always return to mate and molt on the same beach.
This is a gold mine for scientists, who attach all sorts of electronic data-gathering devices to these beasts of the ocean.
"There really are a few places where you can see an animal that does its entire, a big chunk of its life right in front of you," said Dan Costa, a professor of ecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Costa said his team used to joke that these mammals looked like giant grey slugs, lazily napping on the beach -- but when his team started to collect data about what these animals were doing at sea, they realized elephant seals were actually very busy.
"When they go to sea they are working constantly: 20 minutes underwater, two to three minutes at the surface, 20 minutes underwater, two to three minutes at the surface, for eight months," he said. "They don't stop."
Not so long ago, mankind nearly hunted these bizarre creatures out of existence. Costa said that by 1896, the elephant seal was thought to be extinct.
"There was a scientific expedition that landed off of Guadalupe Island, off of Mexico, and they found 12 animals on the beach and they shot all 12 of them -- because, in those days, if you saw an animal you thought was extinct you collected it to put in a museum," he said.
The Mexican government led the conservation charge to save the animals from extinction and the elephant seals bounced back.
"One male could have been the father of all northern elephant seals that exist today," Costa said.
While these animals have been on Earth for millions of years, scientists have only been studying them for 40 years or so. Humans only just discovered that these seemingly ungainly lumps swim as far out as the International Date Line, and dive as deep as a mile below the surface.
"It's a really wonderful animal because there are so many aspects, from human physiology and medicine to basic understanding of how an animal dives and handles pressure, to the ecology of the animal, and the environment and the oceanography," Costa said.
Elephant seals stop breathing when they sleep, and that knowledge has helped our study of human sleep apnea. The animals can also explore remote ocean depths, taking those electronic sensors to places humans have never been.
"They obviously have a very rudimentary existence," Wengert said. "Their evolutionary cycle has been such that even as the world has evolved, they are continuing on."
That might be their biggest asset. Elephant seals have been doing this for millennia. They haven't changed. They could be our canaries in the mine shaft, our 5,000-pound beasts in the deep sea, giving us an insight we need into the health of our planet.