State park offers model for sharing the shore with wildlife

Winter 2017

A California state park near the small coastal town of San Simeon provides a unique and inspiring opportunity for people to view marine mammals such as northern elephant seals in the wild.

It also provides an important example of how people can watch wildlife safely, in keeping with NOAA Fisheries’ ongoing “Share the Shore” campaign. The campaign spanning the West Coast includes extensive information on safe wildlife viewing, with specific advice for watching elephant seals, and seeks to educate wildlife watchers on how best to share the shore.

Northern elephant seals are big – really big. Males can grow as long as 14 feet and weigh as much as a large SUV.

Elephant seals vie for space on a narrow strand of warm sand. Docents help to educate the public on seal behavior and tips for safely viewing the enormous animals.  Photo by Jim Milbury/NOAA Fisheries

The largest rookery in California is found on a narrow beach at Hearst San Simeon State Park about 250 miles south of San Francisco and along the shores of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Here the population of elephant seals has increased to more than 23,000 and is part of one of the greatest wildlife recovery success stories in modern history.

A harem of female elephant seals rest near San Simeon, California. Females mate and give birth during the winter months before heading back into the ocean. Photo by Jim Milbury, NOAA Fisheries

By the late 1800s elephant seals were considered extinct from intensive hunting.  But in the early 1900s a remnant population of about 30 animals was discovered on an island off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.  That meager colony has since grown to more than 200,000 animals from San Francisco to Mexico.

Seals at Piedras Blancas sounding off. The best way to observe the drama is from a safe distance, at least 100 yards. Bring your binoculars or spotting scopes for a close up. Photo by Jim Milbury, NOAA

Elephant seals typically come ashore between December and January. The females give birth and the males square off and battle over available females. It’s great drama, but authorities are challenged to provide safe locations for the throngs of visitors wanting to watch the animals. 

California State Parks offers a safe viewing experience with boardwalks along the beach that separate people from the animals. In addition, a volunteer docent program called Friends of the Elephant Seal educates visitors on how to safely view the animals.

“These animals face many challenges at sea and deserve our respect,” said Carolyn Skinder, NOAA’s southern region program coordinator for Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “They spend most of their life in the ocean and come ashore for just a short period of time to mate, pup, molt or just rest. We can all help these animals while they are ashore by keeping a safe distance.”

Male northern elephant seal rests on one of the Channel Islands. Photo by Chris Yates, NOAA Fisheries

NOAA Fisheries is concerned that onlookers elsewhere may get too close to these or other marine mammals. Some try for a quick cellphone “selfie.” Others may try and touch an animal or even place their small child on the back of one. But startling an animal, coming between a mother and her new pup, or threatening the territory of an aggressive male, can be extremely dangerous.

Seals may appear lifeless when lying on the beach, but they are conserving energy while on shore. Startling or disturbing these resting animals uses up their energy reserves needed for survival, reproduction or caring for their young.

All marine mammals, including elephant seals, are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and in some circumstances, the Endangered Species Act. Anyone found harassing these animals could be subject to federal prosecution.

Most people want to do the right thing. The following viewing guidelines will help:   

To report disturbance or injury to elephant seals and other marine mammals, please call the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

For more information on northern elephant seals please visit these websites:

NOAA:  http://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/seals/northern-elephant-seal.html

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Public Service Announcement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_oZFH6AsDS8

California Department of Parks and Recreation: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=26424

Friends of the Elephant Seal: http://www.elephantseal.org/index.htm

Photos of Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas  https://www.flickr.com/gp/nmfs_northwest/02Gr6i/

Home page photo of seals at San Simeon, California, by Jim Milbury, NOAA