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A Brief History of the Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas

An elephant seal in the water at Piedras Blancas. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

A rueful smile. That's how the desk clerk at the Sea Otter Motel in Cambria reacted when asked if she could tells us when the Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) first took up residence on Piedras Blancas Beach, just north of San Simeon. She didn't hesitate, dating her awareness to a winter's afternoon in the late 1980s when her dog stank to high heaven.

She and her Labrador had headed to the beach that day for a little R&R. The owner read; the dog ran. But after a lengthy lope along the wide, curving strand, the black Lab came back reeking. Unable to identify its source, its owner walked down the beach and was startled to come upon on a small group of elephant seals -- and suspected her pet had rolled in their poop. As for that nose-wrinkling stench: for the next half hour, she flung a tennis ball into the cold surf for her dog to fetch, letting the churning saltwater wash it off.

Although hers sounds like a shaggy dog tale, researchers tracking the elephant seal population along the central coast confirm that these large mammals began to recolonize Piedras Blancas around that time. Their return to this beach, and their lumbering, roaring presence on it, is a striking example of the interplay between two drivers -- exploitation and stewardship -- that so often define human relations with the natural world.

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The elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas has grown significantly since the 1990s. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET
The elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas has grown significantly since the 1990s. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

Mayhem initially took precedence. Beginning in the late 18th Century, European and American whalers began to cruise the Pacific coast, from Baja California to British Columbia; during their winter voyages, they found vast colonies of elephant seal located on countless rocky islands and coastal beaches. Those cooler months are when the seals haul out of the ocean and females give birth to pups conceived eleven months earlier. Even as they are weaning this new generation, dominant males impregnate harems of females; shortly thereafter the seals disperse, launching a migratory foraging that lasts until the next winter.

Hunters were as habituated to these breeding grounds, returning each year to slaughter thousands of animals for their oil. Pursuing them with the same ferocity leveled against the Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), sealers decimated the Northern elephant seal population. An 1868 report about the Baja killing fields testifies to how thorough this bloody harvest could be: "In some years there have been reported to have been not less than thirty whaling and sealing camps below San Diego, aggregating some 2,000 men; and as seals and the affiliate families are in the greatest abundance, cargoes [are] often prepared with great rapidity."

Within a few years, the animal was presumed extinct. Then in 1892, a Smithsonian Institution expedition spotted eight adults on Guadalupe Island off Baja -- and promptly killed seven of them. Somehow enough seals remaining undetected to maintain some semblance of viability. By 1922, a joint Mexican-U.S. research team counted 264 seals on Guadalupe, at which point Mexico took action. That same year it passed legislation making it illegal to kill or capture elephant seals, even stationing a small garrison on the waterless isle to protect its remnant population.

From this principled intervention has emerged one of the great mammalian recovery stories. The progeny of Guadalupe's seals soon enough sought out one-time breeding sites on nearby islands off the Baja coast. As they spread northward to the Channel Islands, which they reached by the 1950s, they received U.S. protection via such international treaties as the Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere (1940), and later the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Twenty years later, Northern elephant seals had reclaimed breeding territory on the Farallon Islands, and researchers estimated that the total population had soared to nearly 50,000.

That individuals began to come ashore along the Central California coast a decade later thus makes sense. So did these animals' selection of Piedras Blancas beach, a cozy sweep of sand protected from fierce Pacific winter storms by Piedras Blancas Point; entangling kelp forests offshore help keep such predators as orcas and great white sharks at bay. This is an almost-ideal locale to insure seal pups' chances of survival.

They have done more than survive, proliferating at an astonishing rate: in 1990, less than two dozen populated a small cove hugging the point that one year later held more than 400. In 1992, the first known pup was birthed on the beach, a number that swelled to 600 in 1995. The next year upwards of 1,000 were brought to life in the prolific colony that now sprawled for miles, including a stretch bordering the Pacific Coast Highway.

A visitor to Piedra Blancas checks out the elephant seals. | Photo: Zach Behrens
A visitor to Piedra Blancas checks out the elephant seals. | Photo: Zach Behrens   

That's where we joined a mid-January crowd strolling along the wooden boardwalk and pressing against the fence-line paralleling a 20-foot bluff overlooking the rookery. Below, alpha males threatened rivals by sound and movement; when a nasal bellow did not work, chase ensued; they brooked no opposition. Females flipped sand on their backs to shield them from the sun's warmth and barked at cagey interlopers seeking to oust them from their ground. Pups squawked to be fed, nudging their mothers' abdomens in search of a milky nipple. Leaning over the rail to get a closer look at the noisome herd, a young girl marveled: "There's tons of them."

She's right, but whether this robust pinniped population is sustainable is another matter. Ecologists are concerned that the northern elephant seals' genetic past might catch up with them. The current population -- now estimated at more 150,000 -- traces its ancestry to that tiny group of surviving seals on Guadalupe Island. As few as two breeding bulls could be the source of its paternal gene pool, a worrisome outcome that may hinder this species' adaptability to a climate-disrupted environment.

In question, too, is whether elephant seals will adapt to a variety of human pressures. Agricultural effluent and urban runoff has compromised the health of a number of other marine species, seals included, an impact that will increase as populations surge. Direct conflicts with humans may also intensify. The more territory elephant seals occupy, the more likely they'll oust surfers and sunbathers from once-prized beaches; their larger presence has already increased the sightings of the seals' predators to the waters we sail, swim, and paddle. How these and other tensions will be managed is open to question.

An elephant seal pup squawks. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET
An elephant seal pup squawks. | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

Some answers are available at Piedras Blancas beach. As its rookery exploded in size, a local grassroots group, Friends of the Elephant Seal, quickly formed. It has become an invaluable educational forum; its docents daily offer advice to visitors about the seals' life cycle, their habits and habitat, with the goal building greater awareness of and support for the species' continued presence here and elsewhere.

The group's onshore activism has been sustained via federal and state management of the marine environment. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's oversees, stretches from Cambria north to Marin County, and incorporates this rookery; a series of overlapping state-designated Marine Protected Areas also lie offshore of Piedras Blancas beach, adding essential regulatory oversight.

These voluntary actions and legislative initiatives embody a healthy humility, allowing these animals we nearly extirpated the chance to reclaim their historic range. Giving way is how we give back.

More: San Simeon's Elephant Seals Flood the Waters to Battle Before Breeding

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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