Elephant seals are my Vietnam. And by that, I mean that I have been traumatized by elephant seals and suffer flashbacks of the trauma from time to time. I don't mean to belittle the gravity and horror of the Vietnam War. I'm just saying that were we to create a trauma graph from "Zero" to "Apocalypse Now" based on my life, my elephant seal experience represents the spike on that graph.
Approximately 6 or 7 years ago, Clyde and I went to California to visit his family as well as to attend a wedding. I do have pleasant memories about this trip; the hotel we stayed at that was right on the coast, the wedding itself which was lovely and had the bride walking down the aisle to "Storybook Love", and the equal parts endearing and frustrating fact that Clyde stuffed his pockets with Hershey's kisses at the wedding reception and then forgot about them until we had done a load of laundry and found all of our clothes covered in chocolate stains. However, those memories merely huddle in the greater shadow of the Elephant Seal Experience.
There was a beach off of Highway One at a place a little north of Cambria which elephant seals are known to frequent. Clyde and his family had visited this beach before and thought it would be fun to take me there. I was excited. I had never seen elephant seals before, not even in a zoo. I'd get to see them in a natural habitat, just hanging out and doing elephant seal things! It would be awesome! We parked the car and made our way to the beach where there was already a throng of people, pointing and taking pictures and chattering animatedly about the seals. I practically skipped to a gap in the crowd where we could get our own look at these no doubt majestic creatures.
At first, I was pretty amazed by it all. The beach was cluttered with these great, whiskered mounds of seals. For the most part, they just lounged on the sand but there were a few more active blokes who heaved their bodies around the beach like tremendous mobile Hefty bags full of thick pudding. Clyde and I pointed in shock and awe at these creatures with their bulbous, floppy noses and bodies covered in battle scars. The females stayed mostly huddled together and some of them even had pups. It could have been a moving and inspiring scene except everything turned awful.
A big nasty brute of a male came flopping and heavily undulating up the beach toward the clustered females, grunting in either anticipation or the effort of hauling his great carcass... or both. Not sure. The one he was after was a mother with a pup. The female tried to shield her baby which actually seemed to do more harm than good because when the brute mounted her, the poor pup was semi-pinned beneath the weight of both his mother and the violently amorous suitor. It was terrible. I remember noises - the big male's grunts that sounded like a giant attempting to suck up the last of a huge milkshake with a straw, the resounding slap as he smacked one flipper repeatedly against the female's side, and the pup's plaintive squeals as it struggled beneath the weight. And then it ended and the male began to slide away, allowing the mother to roll off the poor screaming pup who was only too happy to shuffle to safety. But that's not the end of the horror. Not for me, anyway. As I looked on, I saw a puzzling reddish-orange froth on the sand.
Me: What is that?
Clyde: I don't know... is that blood?
Me: Good lord, did he hurt her!?
Clyde: Wait... there's a trail of it leading to the male... and what's that pink.......oh.
Me: What? I don't get it... I... ohmygod... is that... is that it's PENIS?!?!?!
The image of that screamingly pink organ, covered in frothy orange goop has been seared into my mind perhaps for the rest of my life. I cannot think of elephant seals without shuddering in revulsion and terror. I fear that when I'm lying on my death bed, THAT is going to be the image that pops into my head with my last breath and it will be accompanied by the horrified screams of an infant seal.
I will not leave you with the image that haunts me years later. Instead, I just want you to imagine that you are a female elephant seal basking in the sun on a sandy beach with your sisters and your children and your nieces and nephews. All of the sudden, that peace is broken by the guttural grunts of a horny male elephant seal that has you in its sights.