The beach is shared by large and small elephant seals in late August. The big males are finishing their molt and leaving one by one to head for Alaska, where they will eat to bulk up for their return trip and the birthing and breeding season December through March. As they are leaving, some little youngsters are coming in to rest in what we call the fall haulout, when juveniles hang out on the beach for about a month. The viewing site is sparsely populated until more young seals arrive later in September.
While it’s a quiet time for the seals, it’s a busy time for Friends of the Elephant Seal (FES), as the organization gears up for the training of new volunteer docent guides. This has been a busy and fun summer for docents, with seemingly more visitors than ever at the Piedras Blancas viewing site.
One day in July four docents on duty in a three-hour shift clicked their little pocket clickers to record how many people they actually spoke with. When they added them up, they had talked to more than 500 people from all over the country and around the world.
There’s a lot to talk about, as elephant seals are amazing creatures. They can dive nearly a mile deep, stay under water for up to two hours, and migrate to the Aleutian Islands twice a year. The docents know how they do all that — and more. They learn about the seals, as well as about other wildlife in the area — otters, sea lions, whales, dolphins and birds — during daylong training sessions with marine biologists and other experts.
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FES is now a partner with California State Parks and park personnel also take part in the training. In addition to the three days of talks, PowerPoint presentations and written material, trainees go out onto the bluff with experienced docents for “mentoring” sessions before they “graduate” and get their blue guide jackets.
After that, they are expected to volunteer for four three-hour shifts each month. Each docent indicates times when he or she is available each month and is scheduled for four of those times. Those who live more than an hour from Piedras Blancas may choose to work three shifts each month.
Most of the docents work out on the bluff, but other opportunities include working in the FES office and visitor center, speaking with school and bus tours, and presenting PowerPoint programs. The experience is educational as well as fun as you talk to foreign visitors, land-locked Americans and curious children, who often have good (and challenging) questions.
This year’s sessions will be held on Saturdays Sept. 29, Oct. 13 and 27. After filling out an application, you will be interviewed before the training sessions. The deadline for applications is Sept. 20.
Joan Crowder’s Elephant Seal News column is special to The Cambrian. Friends of the Elephant Seal is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about elephant seals. For details, call 924-1628 or visit www.elephantseal.org.