Devoted senior dedicated to observing seals at Jenner Headlands
JENNER - Baby harbor seals at rest alongside their mothers on the banks of the Russian River estuary mark the arrival of another pupping season and the passage of another year that Elinor Twohy, 94, has kept watch.
Stationed in and around her riverfront cottage on the northernmost reaches of the estuary, Twohy has maintained a record of daily observations on the seal colony for more than a quarter century, taking on the mantle of citizen science long before the phrase was in common use.
Hers is a commitment built on curiosity and scrupulous attention that evolved after she and her late-husband, John, first bought what was then a cozy weekend home at the river's end 52 years ago, acquiring close-up views of the ever-changing world right outside their doors.
But Twohy's work also has served to inform a number of scientific studies over time, supplying long-term, standardized data on the seals' haul-out habits, as well as river conditions and other observations at a level of detail and quality seldom available.
“These sorts of 30- or 40-year data sets don't exist,” said Bay Area hydrologist Dane Behrens, who used Twohy's observations and photos as a UC Davis doctoral student in his research on dynamics that shape the river's tidal lagoon. “For someone to have done this for so long, so diligently... I mean, it was at the point where if she went on vacation, she found someone to do it for her.”
Twohy's preoccupation with the Jenner seals arose decades ago through her growing interest in coastal wildlife and a burgeoning awareness of the importance of conservation, born in part through her participation in a late 1960s campaign to fend off plans to dredge gravel from the Russian River estuary. Twohy said her initial encounter and friendship with a local environmentalist, the late Virginia Hechtman, helped crystallize her appreciation for the coast and her understanding that “we could lose all the natural wonders here.”
Twohy later helped battle a planned housing division and, with her husband, called for permanent protection of the Jenner Headlands more than three decades before a conservation purchase in 2009 made it so, Jenner Headlands Preserve Manager Brook Edwards said.
In the early 1970s, around the time she and her husband moved full time to Jenner, Twohy began noticing increasing numbers of harbor seals hauling out at the river mouth. They have since become a year-round colony.
She enjoyed watching the sweet-faced animals but was intrigued, as well, by their comings and goings, their fluctuating numbers and shifting preference for different haul-out spots. Soon, she began taking notes.
Twohy formalized her data collection around 1989 or '90, when she began working with Linda Hanson, a master's candidate whose study of the harbor seal diet disproved a belief that seals were largely responsible for declining salmon populations. By studying their scat, Hanson determined that while the seals feed primarily on fish, they eat what is available and catchable, with minimal amounts of salmon.
It was then that Twohy adopted the standardized, two-page form she still uses in the event other scientists might find it useful, as they have.
Karen Backe, a master's student with San Francisco State University's Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies, said she is the latest of several colleagues to utilize data collected by Twohy, applying it to work on climate change and coastal habitats.
“Elinor does amazing work, taking these daily observations in a way that is standardized, which makes it incredibly valuable,” Backe said. “She's something of a local celebrity.”
In addition to recording the total number of seals and their locations relative to the ocean beach, the sand bar and the river banks, Twohy notes temperature and weather conditions, the relative height of the waves on the old river jetty, whether the mouth is open or closed, as well as other miscellaneous observations like interactions with other species.
She also takes a series of photographs each day, capturing the landscape around the river mouth and creating a visual record of the day.
Twohy's observations spanned a period following enactment of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, after which harbor seal populations steadily grew around the West Coast.
But her work was entirely localized, centering on factors like the shifting mouth of the river - which closes from time to time due to a wave-driven sandbar, tidal influences, weather and disturbances by dogs, humans, loud seabirds, aircraft and the like.
Twohy has been around to watch the seal population ebb and flow, reaching as many as 600 animals at some points and more recently ranging between about 60 and 300 specimens. She can tell you that “they hate the rain” and hit the ocean water as soon as it starts, and that when the river mouth - their escape route to the ocean - closes, they avoid the estuary beaches and rest facing the ocean.