In a first-time experiment for a new colony of elephant seals at Drakes Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore administrators will reopen the site to visitors this weekend for an up-close view of intriguing creatures hunted to near extinction a century ago.
A phalanx of park rangers and volunteer docents will be on hand to move small groups of visitors along the edge of a parking lot near the beach to ensure the elephant seals and their newborn pups are not disturbed and that no humans end up in harm’s way.
It’s an exciting and unexpected opportunity for visitors to witness the recovery of a once-threatened species and to observe the females with their babies just yards away, park personnel said.
But it’s going to be a balancing act, with rainy weather expected to dampen crowds enough to make the task possible, park personnel said.
“We’re just going to manage the heck out of it,” Point Reyes Superintendent Cicely Muldoon said. “Our winter wildlife program is very rigorous. We have a lot of people eager to get back to work after the shutdown and volunteer docents eager to get back to what they do. We’re going to have a lot of staff on duty.”
Visitors have been able for decades to see elephant seals at the seashore, where they began appearing in the 1970s after an absence of more than 150 years. Though the marine mammals spend most of their lives out in the ocean, they return to shore each winter to birth pups and breed and, later, in spring or summer, to molt.
The first breeding pair of elephant seals appeared at Chimney Rock on the Point Reyes Headlands in 1981, spawning a breeding colony along the entire peninsula that this year has been counted at about 2,500 animals, located largely at Chimney Rock but scattered along several other beaches, too. Muldoon said more than 1,000 pups were expected this year, and 935 already had been born.
Visitors can view the seals from an overlook at Chimney Rock, often with assistance from volunteer docents who provide binoculars and spotting scopes as well as interpretive materials.
But “you’re pretty removed” compared to Drakes Beach, Muldoon said. The new site “is the only place to see them so close.”
“We think this is such a dramatic way to show this conservation success,” she said.
Though a few individual elephant seals have occasionally turned up at Drakes Beach in the past, park ecologists have been allowed to shoo them away by shaking tarps because the beach has so much foot traffic it’s been considered an unsafe place for them to stay. The male elephant seals can grow to 6,000 pounds.
During the recent, 35-day federal shutdown, when only a few law enforcement officers in the park were on duty, about 50 female elephant seals, a dominant bull and several subordinates landed on the beach and stayed, perhaps driven off less-protected beaches by large winter storms and king tides, park staff members said.
About 40 pups have since been born, forcing the park to close the beach and the drive down from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. During storm activity and high water, some of the elephant seals even crossed a band of ice plant into the parking lot and a picnic area near the visitor center.