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On elephant seals and the man who studies them

March 8, 2010 |  7:37 pm

What sort of person spends years of his life tracking the decidedly persnickety elephant seal on a windblown, inhospitable island off the California coast? A uniquely dedicated one, that's for sure. Our colleague Joe Mozingo has an insightful look at the life and work of marine mammal research scientist Brent Stewart and the behemoths he's spent his career studying; here's an excerpt:

The marine biologist picks his way down a mud ravine into the belching, bellowing madness of Cardwell Point.

All eyes are upon him, this short ruddy creature with an orange jacket, red beard and sturdy legs that seem to glide effortlessly across the sand.

Brent Stewart has studied elephant seals for 31 years and knows they are watching him. He scans the wind-scoured sand spit for rogue bulls -- bilious giants of blubber, muscle, whisker and teeth. They come here from the deepest, coldest reaches of the North Pacific to mate, and they don't like interlopers.

Stewart has witnessed epic battles among them, pendulous snouts flailing like medieval maces, chunks of bloody flesh flung into the air, deep thwacks piercing the endless din of the wind. There is no way not to ponder the fragility of the human spine in such moments.

He walks warily into the fray this February afternoon, hundreds deep, keeping an eye open for escape routes.

"They're quiet and sneaky," he says. "When their eyes get all scrunched up, that's when you want to run."

As a senior scientist for Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute, Stewart has studied all types of sea life, in the waters off Antarctica, Greenland, Russia, the uninhabited outer Hawaiian Islands, the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean, Alaska, Iceland, Mexico.

After all that, he still marvels at what he sees every winter so close to home.

"How many people do we have now?" in Southern California, he says. "Twenty million. Just offshore, we have the most diverse area of seabirds and sea mammals anywhere in the world."

Late January and February is the time to behold it, when the elephant seals haul up and fill the beaches, after the longest migration of any mammal on Earth.

Year after year, Stewart takes in the spectacle mostly alone.

San Miguel Island, the westernmost of the Channel Islands, 25 miles off the Santa Barbara coast, is raw. No one lives here permanently and few people visit. Ocean swells blast the jagged shoreline, making it impossible to land a boat most of the year. The relentless wind drives sand and grit over the 15-square-mile hump of land, raking scars through the scrub and stunting the indigenous shrubs.

Stewart, 55, figures he has spent eight or nine years of his life out here.


Video: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

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