by Kip Evans, MBNMS
Massive bodies, some weighing over two and a half tons, are wiggling their way up our beaches again, promoting the success of the Marine Mammal Protection Act but also creating headaches for local marine biologists who must develop a management plan to help deal with the population explosion. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the Northern Elephant Seal, or 'Elefante marino,' as the old Californians called it, is making a remarkable comeback along the Pacific Coast.
The Northern Elephant Seal is one of the largest sea-going mammals to visit land each year. It has lived up and down the Pacific Coast for thousands of years; Chumash Indians shared the Channel Islands with the seals, hunting them as early as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. In the early- to mid-1800s Russian, European and American seal traders also began to hunt these mammals, and decimated the populations at California's main breeding areas until by the mid-1880s the species was nearly extinct. "One hundred years ago one might have wondered if we would ever see Elephant Seals again," says Stacia Fletcher, a University of California at Santa Cruz researcher.
"Today, the population has increased to over 180,000," says Fletcher. This success may be attributed to several factors, including a lack of competition with humans for food. Unlike other marine mammals who have traditionally competed with fishermen, the Northern Elephant Seals' taste for squid and certain fish requires them to spend most of their time feeding in deep waters. Elephant Seals can dive deeper than any other air-breathing vertebrate, plunging to 5,217 feet. Their twenty-minute dives are interspersed with short four- or five-minute periods at the surface.
Another reason for their success is their reproductive habits; Northern Elephant Seals are sexually polygamous. During the breeding season they congregate on sandy beaches, where females give birth to pups and mature adults mate. It is interesting to note that copulatory behavior reaches a peak near Valentine's Day, February 14th. Males are extremely aggressive as they compete for "in season" females, using vocal threats, visual intimidation and body-to-body combat. Visitors should be particularly careful about approaching Elephant Seals during the mating season (January-February).
The rest of the year, adult males and females remain apart, migrating twice a year during post-reproductive and post-molt periods. Males migrate to the Gulf of Alaska and along the Aleutian Islands, swimming for 110 to 145 days and covering almost 4,000 miles before coming ashore again. Females, who remain farther south, off Oregon and Washington, spend about 240 days at sea and travel 3,000 miles.
Females, who remain farther south, off Oregon and Washington, spend about 240 days at sea and travel 3,000 miles.
At Piedras Blancas, north of San Simeon, drivers who stop abruptly in the middle of the road to look at the huge seals (whose population there is estimated at 4,000) are causing near accidents.
Brian Hatfield, a wildlife biologist for the National Biological Service, says, "It's the fastest growth rate of any Elephant Seal population that's ever been documented. We're seeing more and more seals each year." Unfortunately, success has its drawbacks, as tourists pose their children next to the sleeping giants or provoke them to rear up for a more spectacular photograph.
Trying to come up with some long range solutions are the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS) and the State Resources Agency. Signs have been posted at the beaches where the seals haul out, warning the public that it is illegal to harass or disturb them under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. "But there are still reports of people putting their children on the seals' backs, throwing rocks and touching them," says Scott Kathey, Program Specialist with the MBNMS. Earlier this year a German tourist was attacked by a male Elephant Seal and cut on the arm after he hit and poked the animal's tail with a stick. Two children have also suffered bites.
"The Sanctuary office is also working with the National Biological Service, California Department of Fish and Game, the California Coastal Commission and other groups to develop a management plan that assesses the problem and identifies possible solutions," says Terry Jackson, MBNMS Manager. But it may be several months before anything concrete is completed. In the meantime, a controversial Highway One realignment project approved recently by the Coastal Commission may help to steer traffic away from the seals while still providing access to the Sanctuary.
"For now we must rely on public education and agency cooperation," says Jackson. Brian Hatfield agrees, saying that visitors need to be more aware of their impacts on the seal population at Piedras Blancas. He recommends that if you see Elephant Seals from the road, you should park legally and safely, respecting private property, stay at least fifty feet away at all times and do not allow dogs near the seals.