[Ocean Oasis - Behind the Scenes]  Satellite image of the Baja California peninsula and Gulf of California See Spanish version
[On location: Guadalupe Island]
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James Neihouse, Director of Photography, wrote about filming the elephant seals for Ocean Oasis in 1999. Excerpts are included here with his permission. All rights reside with him. The full account with photos can be read on his own website: www.1570films.com.

[As told by James Neihouse]

On this shoot we would be concentrating on the northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) found on the islands off the west coast of Baja. Isla de Guadalupe was our destination; this little island supports several colonies of these large pinnipeds.

James Neihouse filming Guadalupe Sea Lions
We left the dock in San Diego, CA at 11:30 on the morning of January 11th bound for Isla de Guadalupe some 240 miles south of San Diego and 230 miles off the coast of Baja California. The weather was beautiful, clear blue skies with just enough high clouds sprinkled here and there to make it interesting. The Pacific was being kind to us with little wind and almost no swell, as they say; "It just doesn't get any better than this".

Within an hour of leaving the dock we spotted several schools of pacific whiteside dolphin and a pod of gray whales headed south, so the trip seemed to be getting starting on the right foot. If we're lucky we might be filming those same gray whales in a month or so in San Ignacio Lagoon, but for now we are headed for Guadalupe Island and elephant seals.

It's about a 26 hour run to the island and we made use of some of the time by rigging a special camera mount on the bow of the boat. The rig is a contraption built by underwater cameraman Bob Cranston (Into The Deep, Living Sea and Island of the Sharks) and Mike Wescoat; it is basically a two-axis gimbal on which we can attach an IMAX camera. Like all good rigs this one has lots of bungee cord. The gimbal allows the camera to remain somewhat level when the boat rocks and rolls, we don't want to make the audience too seasick!

We arrived at Guadalupe about 1:30 PM on Tuesday and made a quick survey of the areas where the elephant seals are known to haul out. Sure enough they were there, we picked a beach in an area known as Twin Canyons to set up our filming "camp" and started hauling the equipment ashore. Bringing all that gear on shore was not easy. We had to enclose everything in waterproof bags, avoid swamping the dinghy in the surf and wade chest deep in 60-degree water. All the while I'm trying not to look like an elephant seal pup in my black wetsuit [because of reports of sharks]. Once on shore, we wound our way through and around several of the beach residents—4000-pound elephant seals, who were not too happy to see us.

I love the smell of seal breath in the morning— Guadalupe Island is unlike most of the islands that sit along the coast of southern California from Point Conception southward in that it is volcanic in origin. The ancient lava flows, abruptly ending at water's edge, belie the island's tumultuous past. The Pacific is deep right up to the shore and there are few beaches. The beaches that exist are made up of dark brown, almost black, volcanic sand.

January is the pupping season for these giant marine mammals and the new mothers are very protective of their offspring. At least as protective as they can be with 5000 pound male elephant seals protecting their turf from would be suitors. Fights and threats take their toll on the young, a new born elephant seal does not stand much of a chance against a full grown male thundering down the beach pursuing a rival. The males accepted us, or rather put up with us better than the females. The new mothers were protecting their pups and the expectant mothers were protecting their piece of the beach. They would get very aggressive if you invaded their space and some would even chase you down the beach. They can move quite quickly for their size and their jaws are capable of crushing bones. You had to constantly be aware of who was behind you lest you end up getting a nip from one of the ladies.

Just walking down the beach could be a challenge. The dark volcanic sand and large rocks made some of the seals blend right into their surroundings. Add to that the fact that they like to fling sand over their backs for thermal control and you could walk right into an unsuspecting elephant seal if you didn't pay close attention. Most of the time they were watching us and would start bellowing a warning when we got too close. It was the ones that were not paying attention or asleep that could really surprise you. The pups are a very dark brown when they are young which makes them look even more like rocks. You could find yourself between a mother and her young one and be on the receiving end of some serious aggression.

One of the most curious behaviors of the elephant seal is the sand flinging. For reasons of thermal control these mammals almost constantly fling sand over their backs using the front flippers. When you watch several hundred of them lying on a beach doing this it brings to mind hundreds of little sand geysers erupting. The whole scene is sort of reminiscent of something from Star Wars