It was the nirvana that serious whale watchers dream about. A couple hundred yards offshore, 20 gushers of vapor were being expelled from the blowholes of humpback whales. Viewed from Cambria’s Leffingwell Point, it was like a mythical white picket fence spread out across the steel blue horizon.
These 50-ton leviathans weren’t passing through on a migratory trek. They were in the midst of a three-day feeding frenzy. Their movements fluid like ballet dancers, they surfaced, blew vapor and dove, again and again, filling bellies with anchovies — bait fish that populated North Coast waters during the third week in August.
On Saturday, Aug. 23, another remarkable exhibition played out at Leffingwell, as 100 or more birds swarmed and dove for baitfish close to shore. It was a feeding frenzy for the ages — pelicans, cormorants, elegant terns, shearwaters and other birds battled for position.
Interestingly, a long line of about 60 seagulls eschewed the madcap diving and waited at the water’s edge to snack on tiny critters left when the tide goes out.
Once the frenzy slowed, first two, then five, and then the whole gaggle of pelicans landed on the beach, lining up in front of the long row of seagulls. The pelicans, twice the size of gulls, seemed to play the role of sentinels standing guard.
Docents as sentinels
When it comes to humans interacting with wildlife, it’s not a stretch to say that docents on the North Coast — with other volunteers and State Parks employees — perform sentinel-like roles, as well.
They provide key informational services and watchfulness at the elephant seal colony, the Discovery Center, the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, San Simeon State Beach in the winter (when elephant seals arrive at the north end of the cove) and elsewhere along the pristine coastline.
Docents keep an eye out as visitors observe — and sometimes rudely interrupt — the richly diverse wildlife community.
That dynamic was discussed in an interview with Carolyn Skinder, docent coordinator and director of the Coastal Discovery Center at San Simeon Bay.
“People come too close to harbor seals on the rocks at low tide,” she explained. “They also harass the elephant seals on the beach in the winter.”
Skinder, regional program coordinator for the NOAA Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said getting too close to harbor seals forces the animals off the rocks, which sometimes separates them from their pups.
She has seen “people hitting elephant seals with sticks to make them move,” and even witnessed parents putting children on the back of a large male elephant seal so photos could be taken. Occasionally, when sea otters come on or near the shore, visitors with dogs harass the otters.
“People have even picked up pups off the beach,” she recalled.
Skinder is promoting NOAA’s “Help Give Sea Otters and Seals a Break!” campaign, which raises funds to teach visitors “about sanctuary stewardship.” While harassment of humpbacks is not as big a problem in the San Simeon Cove area as it is in Monterey Bay, Skinder points out that whales are protected by three federal laws, and kayaking too close to them is not only dangerous, but it can also result in fines of up to thousands of dollars.
Local wildlife advocate Margaret “PJ” Webb has witnessed people involved in “egregious” behavior at the cove.
“I’ve seen visitors try to goad large elephant seals into charging them so they could videotape the scene,” she said. “When the animal didn’t respond, they kept goading the animal until it charged.
“When these individuals stepped away to avoid the charge, there was a group of small children in the path. Fortunately, the animal lay back down. It’s very dangerous.”
Webb, a public interest attorney, sometimes lends a hand when visitors report seeing a harbor seal pup by itself: “They report that it is abandoned, but it isn’t. That’s really hard on the mother because when people get too close, the mother stays away.
“When people disturb an animal, it has to go in the water to get away, so you’re putting stress on an animal that’s already stressed,” Webb said.
Nick Franco, State Parks district superintendent, says he believes in “balancing visitor enjoyment and visitor use with the preservation and the protection of the land and the animals.
“The whole point of parks in these protected areas is that we have a rich wildlife environment that people can come and see and enjoy. We want them to come and to enjoy, but at the same time they need to enjoy in respectful ways.”
Getting close to wildlife means “you’re entering their habitat,” he said. “You wouldn’t go to your neighbor’s house and tramp through the living room and raid their refrigerator.”
In fact, Franco continued, the elephant seals have a “house,” and the harbor seals also have a “house,” and respect for their habitat is vitally important.
Asked how to inform visitors vis-a-vis respect for North Coast wildlife, Franco praised the “huge volume of volunteers” including Friends of the Elephant Seals. “They are just fabulous at spreading the word,” he said.
Local wildlife sentinels offer this straightforward guidance: Take a break and enjoy nature, but give the seals, the otters, the birds and the whales a break as well.