Editor’s note: Joan Crowder submitted this month’s column early, before she left on a vacation to Hawaii, where, tragically, she drowned June 17. Space here is not adequate to say how much she will be missed by so many with whom she came in contact, both personally and professionally. Joan was passionate about her work with Friends of the Elephant Seal, and it’s somehow fitting her last column talks about how others can join the team carrying on the mission she so loved.
Heading into the summer season at the elephant seal viewing site at Piedras Blancas, volunteer docent guides talk with visitors from all over the world.
On a recent afternoon, I spoke to more than 100 people, including four students from Cal Poly who were making a final visit before graduation, an ecologist and a journalist from Nicaragua, and people from Australia, England, Germany, France, Israel and Japan, as well as enthusiastic families from landlocked Iowa, Ohio and Nebraska, excited to see the young male seals sparring and playing during the annual molting season when they come to the beach to shed a layer of skin and hair.
Part of the fun of being an elephant seal docent is meeting interesting and interested people.
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There’s a lot to talk about, as elephant seals are amazing creatures. They can dive over a mile deep, stay underwater 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 training sessions with marine biologists and other experts.
The Friends of the Elephant Seal nonprofit group is now a partner with
After that, they are expected to volunteer for four three-hour shifts each month. Each docent indicates times when he or she is available. 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, and the conversations change with the seasons as seals of different ages come and go in predictable patterns.
This year’s docent training sessions will be held Sept. 13 and Oct. 11, 18 and 25. After filling out an application, participants will be interviewed before the training sessions. The deadline for applications is Sept. 1.
For applications or information, call 924-1628, or visit www.elephantseal.org.
The visitors are impressed by the size of some of the seals on the beach now, but they are what we call “SAMS,” subadult male seals, equivalent in age and stage to human teenagers.
In a few weeks, the really big guys will begin arriving to molt in the amazing musical-chairs-style rotation of ages that come in to molt during the summer. Although they travel alone in the sea, each one is wired to know when it’s his or her turn to return to the rookery and how to find it.