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Tourist attraction or nuisance? Elephant seals were once ‘emerging problem’ in SLO County

Elephant seals have been a tourist attraction since the 1990s.

But they were once valued for another reason.

An article published in the Daily Evening Tribune on Jan. 10, 1884, talks about a southern hemisphere hunt on South Georgia Island between Argentina and Antarctica. Whaling ships were sent to slaughter the pinnipeds for oil and hides.

“How many elephant-seals were slaughtered by the crew of the ‘Mary Ann’ is not known,” the article reads, “but it is recorded that within twenty-five years of her visit to Georgia Island, there were killed on that island alone over one million two hundred thousand animals, or about one thousand every day during the season.”

The San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram said in a Nov. 15, 1913, article that “the last herd of sea elephants known to exist is to be found at Guadalupe island, off the west coast of Mexico. The herd there are now only about thirty specimens.”

The seals and whales survived when kerosene replaced seal and whale oil as a fuel source. That, in turn, was replaced by gas jets and electric lighting.

Elephant seals began returning to the Central Coast of California in 1990. Enough seals had spilled over from the Piedras Blancas rookery near San Simeon by 1994 that a tourist was bitten after teasing an animal.

Adult male elephant seals can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, making a human the underdog in hand-to-flipper combat.

By 1996, a few elephant seals were trying to cross Highway 1 and getting injured in collisions.

Volunteers with nonprofit organization Friends of the Elephant Seal have been educating locals and travelers for more than two decades.

But when Coleen Bondy wrote this story, published in the Telegram-Tribune on April 11, 1996, the seals still needed friends:

Return of seals raises new problems

The triumphant recovery of the northern elephant seal from the brink of extinction should be cause for celebration.

Bull elephant blusters on the beach. Elephant seals were becoming a tourist attraction in 1996. One seal pup was born on the beach at Piedras Blancas in 1992, more than 5,800 were born in the 2018 season. David Middlecamp 1-27-1996 David Middlecamp

Instead, it’s got employees from about a half-dozen public agencies scrambling to find a way to manage their quickly expanding population.

When the state Coastal Commission approved a controversial realignment for a dangerous, curvy stretch of Highway 1 north of Piedras Blancas on Thursday, a growing herd of elephant seals along the coast became a major focus of the debate.

Beach users are afraid they might eventually lose an access point just approved for the beach at Twin Creeks south of the Piedras Blancas lighthouse because of the seals.

Officials had barely begun dealing with problems created by the elephant seals on the beach near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse when the seals spread southward to the beach at Twin Creeks.

Irma Lagomarsino, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Los Angeles, said officials don’t have a solution.

“It is an emerging problem that we don’t have an answer for yet,” she said. “We’re trying to wrack our brains to figure that out.”

The fisheries agency is charged with enforcing the Marine Mammals Protection Act. In the past, it has focused on enforcing laws to ensure that marine mammal populations continued to grow.

“The act does not deal very well with how you manage them once they get back to a healthy status,” she said. “I don’t think it anticipated these kinds of conflicts.”

The highway realignment project approved by the Coastal Commission requires creation of a long-term management plan for the elephant seals at Twin Creeks.

Caltrans, the fisheries service, San Luis Obispo County, the National Biological Survey, the California Resources Agency, the Coastal Commission and possibly several other government agencies will all have a hand in preparing the management plan.

Even the steering committee for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary plans to talk about the seals at Piedras Blancas at an upcoming meeting, Lagomarsino said.

The seals now number about 2,000 in the Piedras Blancas area.

A mother seal barks instructions to her pup. Elephant seals were becoming a tourist attraction in 1996. One seal pup was born on the beach at Piedras Blancas in 1992, more than 5,800 were born in the 2018 season. David Middlecamp 1-27-1996 David Middlecamp

“Humans want to use the beach, and so do seals,” she said. “I think we’d be very hard-pressed to kick the seals off the beach.”

Some steps have already been taken to deal with the seals. Signs have been posted at beaches where the seals hang out warning the public that it is illegal to harass them. Fences and concrete barriers have been installed to keep wayward seals — and there have been a few — off the highway.

But no one is protecting the seals from the public, or the public from itself.

There have been reports of people putting their children on the seals’ backs, throwing rocks at them, and touching them. At least one person has been bitten by a seal.

“Someone’s going to get really seriously injured,” Lagomarsino said.

The agency can’t afford to have an enforcement officer in the area every day, however.

Educational programs might work with local residents, but they don’t seem to be very effective with tourists, she added.

“It’s great to go see them. I think it is, too. But you’ve got to use common sense,” Lagomarsino said.

Lee Otter, a staff member with the state Coastal Commission, said he’d like to see a docent-led program similar to the one at Ano Nuevo State Park in Northern California.

“When properly managed, you can have both public access and protect the seals,” he added.

County Supervisor Bud Laurent agrees.

He would like to see volunteer docents give tours at the beach, and make sure the public is staying a safe distance away from the seals, as part of the management plan.

“No federal agency has stepped forward to do a damn thing for them,” said Laurent.

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David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes an FAA-certified drone pilot license. He also writes the history column “Photos from the Vault.”