Charles Scammon, a whale and seal hunter sailing along the Pacific coast in the 1800s, reported seeing northern elephant seals all the way up the coast from Baja California in Mexico, to Point Reyes in California. He, among many others of his kind, hunted the seals and great whales for their oil-rich blubber. So many were killed for this that it led the animals to the brink of extinction. It has been estimated that fewer than 1,000 northern elephant seals existed by 1910.
As early as 1922, the Mexican government banned the hunting of these animals, and the ban was followed shortly thereafter by the United States government. Thanks to that, the population of northern elephant seals has recovered at an average rate of six percent per year since then. Today, with plenty of government protection, as well as the seals’ distant lives at sea, worldwide population has grown to an estimated 150,000 seals.
As for elephant seals living on the rocky Point Reyes Headlands, that was history up until a few decades ago. They were absent from that location for more than 150 years up until they returned in the early 1970s. It wasn’t until 1981 that the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. From that moment on, researchers noticed that the colony was growing dramatically at an annual average rate of 16 percent. Even though big storms like El Nino killed hundreds of them off, the Point Reyes elephant seal population is still between 1,500 and 2,000.
Point Reyes National Seashore is one of the few places on the Pacific Coast where northern elephant seals may be observed and studied. Although now they can be seen at Drakes Beach (part of the Point Reyes National Seashore Park) too. Why had this never happened before? Because there were federal employees managing the park and keeping the seals at bay for the animals own safety, and the safety of humans. But then there was a month-long partial government shutdown and these federal employees were gone… all humans were gone since the park was closed to the public without anyone there to run it.
When these employees returned, they had a beach full of around 100 elephant seal squatters, many that weigh as much as a car! Some of them were pregnant or newborns, and all of them were opportunistic elephant seals that have taken over what used to be the tourist area of Drakes Beach, California.
Normally, these seals were living amongst each other in their colony of nearly 1,500 seals inhabits nearby Chimney Beach, which is protected from binocular-wearing tourists by 100-foot-tall cliffs. The Drakes Beach was claimed by humans as it was perfect for lounging with its wide swath of sand and spectacular views of the Pacific. The park officials were using a low-tech method to enforce an armistice between the mammal species: They waved a blue tarp to annoy the seals away from the areas most popular with Homo sapiens.
John Dell’Osso, chief of interpretation and resource education for the seashore, told the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Sometimes you go out with tarps and you shake the tarps and it annoys them and they move the other direction. It doesn’t scare them and it’s a standard technique used with elephant seals. This would have kept them farther away from tourists.”
Well, they obviously wanted that beach because when there was nobody there to shoo them off they showed up with all their friends and family. Furthermore, the seals give birth during winter, and the unoccupied Drakes Beach appears to be an excellent place to raise pups.
Then, on Jan. 27, possibly oblivious to what had happened during their closing, Point Reyes National Seashore notified eager would-be visitors that Drakes Beach and other popular locations would reopen after the shutdown. Then four days later, maybe after checking the location and realizing the seals took over, the officials posted this:
“Drakes Beach and its access road from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard are temporarily closed to all vehicle, foot and bicycle traffic due to elephant seal activity in the area.”
Because a bull can weigh as much as 4,500 pounds, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns:
“despite their sometimes docile and clumsy appearance, elephant seals can be extremely quick and sometimes vicious if humans or their pets get too close.”
Although, the humans are not completely surrendering to these animals. According to Dell’Osso, staff members are exploring the possibility of offering guided tours of the Drakes Beach elephant seal colony.
The Washington Post cleverly says:
“You know the saying: When the cat’s away the mice will play. It appears the Bay Area is ready to coin a new turn of phrase: When the rangers are gone the elephant seals will swarm.”