For more than a dozen years, elephant seal “bachelors” have rested periodically at the San Simeon Bay cove and beach, taking a break from the winter breeding-and-birthing melee at the rookery about 4.3 miles to the north.
As the disgruntled male seals seek refuge in the cove and on the William Randolph Hearst Memorial Beach shoreline, more people have learned that the seals are there, across Highway 1 from the entrance to Hearst Castle.
With increased activity of seals and humans there, whenever the schedules of park rangers, Friends of the Elephant Seal docents, volunteers from The Marine Mammal Center and others allow, those people strive to keep the seals and visiting humans safe and at a proper distance (about 100 feet) from each other.
For instance, the volunteers or rangers use driftwood stakes to mark a circle around a seal, “to give people a more visual barrier” of what’s an appropriate distance, according to Dan Falat, superintendent of the State Park district that includes the cove and Hearst Castle. Visitors “wouldn’t expect to see an elephant seal in that location on the beach, so we get a lot of calls. We go down to make sure nobody’s harassing the seals… Some folks can be more sensitive than others.”
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If there are a dozen seals on the beach, however, that’s a lot of circles. And the seals don’t stay put, either.
If humans get too close — especially if they get between two of the seals, or one seal and his exit to the sea — the risk of conflict escalates dramatically, according to officials.
Kathy Curtis, vice president of the Friends’ board of directors, said recently that on just five Sundays this year, the organization has had 16 reports of “either serious human safety concerns or harassment of the seals.”
But the volunteers and rangers can’t be there during all daylight hours, and “I know there are other incidents going on all the time,” she said.
“For the last 15 years that counts have been taken of elephant seals on San Simeon Beach, subadult males have come and gone from late December until the beginning of March,” said Carolyn Skinder of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “During this 15-year period, the peak count was 21 animals.”
“This year, the cove has seen a maximum of 15 subadult males,” she added. “Even though these males will not breed, they still exhibit territorial behavior typical of winter — vocalizing, fighting for beach territory and chasing each other.”
Too close for comfort
Getting too close to a seal or disturbing it can be considered harassment, which is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The seals are a listed species, having been hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s. Populations have recovered, although habitat loss remains a threat.
Although the huge sleeping seals can look like oversized beanbag couches, the protected marine mammals can move fast for short distances.
And, being wild animals, they can be testy and fight back when they think they’re being challenged or interfered with. A bite on a human or canine can turn septic very quickly.
Sunday at the park
The San Simeon park — with its long pier, grassy area, picnic tables and more — has been a cherished recreational treasure for generations of people, offering everything from wading, swimming, rockhounding, collecting shells and driftwood to picnicking, surfing, fishing, boating and so much more, including the Coastal Discovery Center.
But the recognized seal rookery about 4 miles to the north has been growing. Last year’s estimated population in the colony was just over 25,000 elephant seals.
In fact, the site north of San Simeon is now reportedly the largest such mainland rookery in the world, and it’s the only one that’s within sight of motorists passing by on a busy highway. At the height of the season, the rookery shoreline is packed with layers of noisy, active seals.
And there’s often not enough room at the rookery for that many massive mammals, with big bulls jousting with underlings for breeding rights, females giving birth and nursing their pups and all of them resting intermittently between all that activity.
As alpha males — weighing up to 5,000 pounds — run off their bachelor challengers, the defeated younger bulls slink off into the sea and swim away to other shores, including on the San Simeon Bay beach. They’re apparently seeking time to rest and recover before entering the fray again.
According to docents, scientists, volunteers and others concerned about the situation, the time spent at a popular beach for tourists and locals has increased the risk to human safety and can result in more harassment of the massive marine mammals.
On an unseasonably warm, sunny Jan. 27, for instance, visitors flocked to the beach. Children frolicked in the surf, families walked along the water’s edge and people reveled in the sun and shore.
There also were 13 male elephant seals swimming or on the shoreline where they rested or sparred for prime positions and the right to be at the top of the heap at the cove beach. Curtis said some seals swam dangerously close to the humans in the water, some of whom were unaware of the mammals or the potential danger of being between the seals and the shore.
In fact, given the lay of the land and how drifting or sand can partially camouflage a sleeping seal, people can walk out of the parking lot and up onto the beach and not even notice that they’re within a few feet of an unpredictable wild mammal that could chase them.
That day, the three volunteers did their best to keep the peace (and space) between man and beast: Curtis and two Goodger Memorial Internship students from Cal Poly, Abrielle Goodwein and Tyler Peck-Burnett. Curtis mentors the two students, who are working in a cooperative program with Friends, The Marine Mammal Center and their college biological science studies.
The three and other volunteers try to be there at least on Sundays during the peak season, because that’s when the most people are in the park. If schedules allow, other docents try to fill in the gaps. But with about 90 active docents in the Friends’ group and regular shifts to put in at the rookery, that’s a lot of hours to fill with not enough people.
“At least 95 percent of the people are very thankful that we’re there,” Curtis said. “They listen to what we say, walk where we tell them to walk. But everybody wants photographs, which is the No. 1 thing that gets them too close to the seals. If they’d just use their zoom lenses.”