Elephant seals occupy popular California beach

Thirty-five days.

It’s the amount of time it took for Joshua Tree National Park to be vandalized to the point where it could take up to 300 years for the vast protected area to fully recover.

It’s the amount of time it took for 1,655 “clumps” of used toilet paper to accumulate across the harsh desert landscape of Death Valley National Park.

It’s the amount of time it took for the National Park Service to suffer from up to $11 million in revenue loses — about $40,000 per day in entrance fees gone.

And it’s the amount of time that it took for a colony of boisterous elephant seals to stage a takeover of Point Reyes National Seashore, parking lot including.

Elephant seals, once nearly hunted to the point of extinction in California, are a common sight on the protected beaches of Point Reyes, a 71,000-acre preserve located just north of San Francisco along Marin County’s windswept coast. (Per park estimates, roughly 2,000 of the fin-footed marine animals call Point Reyes home.) But because of Point Reyes’ immense popularity amongst humans and elephant seals, park officials are often required to perform pinniped crowd control. This comes in the form of harmless hazing techniques — routine seal shooing, basically — so the two mammalian species can coexist peacefully.

“We don’t want visitors disturbing or harming elephant seals, and we don’t want elephant seals harming visitors, either,” Dave Press, head wildlife ecologist at the National Park Service-maintained preserve, tells The Guardian.

But during the five-week partial government shutdown, furloughed park employees were unable to shoo the seals away from touristy areas. And that quickly led to the inevitable as a sizable colony of elephant seals descended on Drakes Beach, a normally people-filled stretch of sand where they’d long been verboten.

Chimney Beach and elephant seals, Point Reyes When not at sea, Point Reyes’ resident elephant seals normally converge on Chimney Beach. (Photo: Don DeBold/Flickr)

New real estate opportunities for Point Reyes’ perennial pinnipeds

The San Francisco Chronicle notes that while there are indeed frequent interlopers at Drakes Beach, elephant seals usually stick to the more secluded Chimney Beach at the far southern end of the park. But winter storms and unusually high tides that occurred during the shutdown inundated sections of Chimney Beach, which resulted in the colony sussing out nearby beachfront property.

With no one around to shoo them away from the newly colonized beach, pregnant females began birthing pups and the males, known for their aggression, colossal size (they can weigh up to 4,000 pounds) and grotesque-comical proboscises, began staking out territory. The occupation of Drakes Beach was complete.

“If you just get out of the way, wildlife will find their way in,” says Press.

Not just content with staking claim to a new beach, the colony eventually expanded into an adjacent parking lot as well as the wooden ramps to the visitor center.

Writes the Los Angeles Times:

The giant mammals made their way onto shore and into the parking lot, knocking over a fence and some picnic tables in the process. Had workers not been furloughed, they would have shaken tarps at the seals in an effort to shoo the animals farther up the beach where they normally lounge.

Instead, park staff is letting them stay put. The seals have since abandoned all but a sliver of the parking lot and claimed the beach as their own.

When the longest shutdown in United States’ history ended and it came time to fully reopen Point Reyes to visitors, it was clear that sections of the park — namely Drakes Beach — would need to be closed to the public until the colony — now consisting of 53 females, 10 extra-hefty bulls and 52 pups as reported by The Sacramento Bee — dispersed naturally. And that’s not happening anytime soon as pup nursing season won’t conclude until late March or April, at which point the colony will thin out and human activity on the beach can resume as normal.

“We are not going to interfere with that process whatsoever,” park spokesman John Dell’Osso tells the LA Times.

Elephant seal drakes beach A lone male elephant seal lounges on Drakes Beach in early 2018. (Photo: Mark Gunn/Flickr)

A new opportunity to get up close-ish and personal

While many visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore may be inconvenienced by the continued closure of Drakes Beach, the shutdown-prompted elephant seal conquest does have one notable upside.

While the beach, parking lot and visitor’s center remain off-limits Monday through Friday, park rangers and volunteer naturalists are now leading limited — and very supervised — tours on the weekends in which visitors are afforded a much closer view of the blubbery beasts.

As the LA Times explains, the park’s elephant seal colonies can normally only be observed from the safety of designated bluff-side viewing areas above Chimney Beach. Officials plan to conclude the special tours once the pups have stopped weaning and the colony has scattered from Drakes Beach. The park website does note, however, that “access may change based on elephant seal activity.”

This past weekend, visitors were treated to quite the show in the beach parking lot when two seals got frisky for an assembled crowd. To the uninitiated, mating elephant seals can be an alarming spectacle considering that females resemble large harbor seals and males, which can weigh several thousands of pounds heavier than their mates, look like the result of an unholy union between Dumbo and a particularly unattractive walrus. And that’s putting it kindly.

Essentially, male and female elephant seals don’t look like two animals that should be getting busy together as this dramatic photo captured by park officials illustrates.

“They came up to the parking lot to procreate. So that was lovely,” Dell’Osso tells the LA Times, adding: “You could barely see the female.”

Roughly 1,300 visitors took part in the guided tours last Saturday alone.

“People were incredibly appreciative to see these animals as close as you can see them,” remarked Dell’Osso.

(Point Reyes National Seashore: Come for the sweeping coastal views, hiking trails and historic lighthouse, stay for the elephant seals having noisy sex in a parking lot.)

While the impact of the government shutdown has been nothing short of devastating for many already struggling National Park Service units across the country, Point Reyes National Seashore was, by some small miracle, able to use a very bad situation to its advantage.

Park officials just had to let nature, well, do its thing.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Elephant seals occupy popular California beach

Point Reyes National Seashore has always been a hotspot for the elephantine sea mammals. But not like this.

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