Expanding elephant seals give good show

David Briggs
Crowds gathered around a cacophonous colony of elephant seals on Saturday morning at Drakes Beach. But chuckling visitors had to be quickly shooed back as a male and female burst from the rest of the group and galloped into the parking lot to enjoy some not-so-alone time.  

Hoping to lounge on Drakes Beach during a break in the weather? Think again. A group of elephant seals and their young invaded the most accessible part of the beach during the government shutdown last month, drawing international media attention. The nearly 100 cows, bulls and pups prompted park officials to close the road and the parking lot in late January, though they experimented with a two-day opening last weekend for viewing purposes.

The beach scene was a real show. Piled on top of one another, lazy family sprawling was interrupted every few minutes by eruptions of screeching, dueling, flopping or mating. Bulls tossed their heads in the adjacent surf, occasionally coming on shore but quickly retreating when the largest bull, the king of the beach who boasted heavy scarring, gave a menacing lunge in their direction.

January is birthing season for northern elephant seals, one of the largest pinniped species, with males averaging around 4,500 pounds. Until the pups can fend for themselves—typically around April—the parents will be tied to the beach to protect them. “Our priority is to not disturb the animals, though we want to allow the public this exceptional opportunity to witness them,” John Dell’Osso, the seashore’s chief of interpretation, told the Light.

During his first week back to work, Mr. Dell’Osso was caught in a string of interviews for local, national and then international outlets following the story of the seals that took over the beach while park employees were furloughed. Among them, Anderson Cooper spotlighted Mr. Dell’Osso live on his news briefing Full Circle. 

Mr. Dell’Osso was somewhat mystified by the widespread interest, but said that never during his 30-plus-year tenure with the seashore have this many seals taken up residence at Drakes Beach. Every winter elephant seals haul out for their pupping season on the outer beaches of Point Reyes. The best viewing is typically the lookout at Chimney Rock, where the seals have historically congregated. This year, park officials say, king tides and storms in late January likely pushed them into the protected cove of adjacent Drakes Beach.

Throughout the park, their numbers are expanding: in 2014, surveys tallied 1,770 individuals during the mating season, compared to a survey last week that found 2,444. 

“Within Drakes Bay, all sites are increasing, but Drakes Beach is increasing at a faster rate than the sites closer to Chimney Rock,” the seashore’s wildlife ecologist, Dave Press, wrote in an email. According to his numbers, in 2014, there were just six females along Drakes Beach, compared to the 356 cows counted there last week. 

Out of the 985 pups counted in the entire park last week, 309 pups were found along Drakes Beach, 45 of which were stationed directly in front of the parking lot. That’s up from just five pups counted along the entire stretch of beach in 2014. 

“Female seals will return to sites where they successfully raised a pup in prior years,” Mr. Press said. “Drakes Bay is an inviting location for northern elephant seals because it is generally more protected than the exposed beaches along the Point Reyes Headlands that can take a direct hit during big winter storms. In most years, Drakes is a wide, sandy beach that does not get completely inundated during major storm events.”

Though the International Union for the Conservation of Nature now ranks both northern and southern elephant seals as species of least concern due to their growing populations, between 1884 and 1892, not one elephant seal was observed and the species were thought to be extinct.

“When commercial elephant seal hunting began in 1846, the early accounts told of extraordinary abundance. Sometimes the seals were shot in the head while they slept. On some beaches the seals were herded to one end of the beach, killed with clubs, and then butchered. The blubber was taken for oil leaving the skin, meat, bones, and guts for scavengers. The bulls, cows, and pups were all taken,” states an informational newsletter provided by the seashore.

A ban on elephant seal hunting came into effect in 1922, and at that time an estimated group of 100 individuals of northern elephant seals began to recover. Today the seals, protected by the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, hover at around 150,000 individuals.

Males come south from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and females come west from Hawaii, making appearances in places like Point Reyes and Año Nuevo in Central California a few times a year, including during the winter to give birth and rear their pups. The seals typically spend 80 percent of their lives in the ocean. While the females are watching their young into maturity on the beach, they are fasting, losing up to 40 percent of their body weight as they produce milk and stand guard.

Park officials are still brainstorming ways to best provide visitor access during this winter’s unique circumstances. Last weekend’s viewing went well, with an estimated 1,000 to 1,400 visitors on Saturday when the weather was finest (triple the good-weather numbers for a weekend day). Everyone was respectful of the animals, while eight seasonal docents, two law enforcement officers and two interpretative officers helped facilitate.

Mr. Dell’Osso said the road and parking lot will be open again this weekend between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.