Elephant seals can dive to a depth of more than a mile, and stay below for an hour or longer, on a single breath. The seals roll over on their backs and spiral towards the bottom of the sea in a slow descent known as a drift dive.
Our guide described the motion as resembling the fluttering of a leaf falling to the ground.
As they descend, the elephant seal’s lungs collapse. The oxygen is transferred to their spleen and then routed to the animal’s muscles, digestive tract, heart, and brain as needed.
Scientists believe the seals use the long dive to rest and process their food. Their gentle decent makes them less noticeable to predators.
That bright February morning at Ano Nuevo State Park was a lifetime ago.
I had tacked on the visit to see the seals during their breeding season on the recommendation of the ranger at Big Basin National Park, where I had hiked the day before.
There was one other person on the tour, a woman from New York City visiting her daughter at Santa Cruz. We spent three hours together, talking and observing the clamorous colonies of elephant seals.
Our guide explained that outside of the breeding season, both the male and female seals are solitary creatures. Alone, they spend between 250 and 300 days a year at sea.
On the walk back to the parking lot, the woman told me that she and her daughter had a troubled relationship. She confessed that when she arrived at the dorm, her daughter did not want to see her after all.
She came to visit the elephant seals instead.
In the six weeks since I returned from California, the entire world has gone into a free fall.
I wonder if the woman, like me, takes comfort in the indelible image of the elephant seals drifting, leaf-like, toward the bottom of the sea.