While sailing along the Pacific coast in the 1800s, a whale and seal hunter named Charles Scammon reported seeing northern elephant seals from Baja California in Mexico to Point Reyes in California. Sharing the fate of many of the oceans' great whales, the elephant seals were hunted to the brink of extinction for their oil-rich blubber. One bull elephant seal would yield nearly 25 gallons of oil. Though we don't know exactly how many northern elephant seals were alive before the 20th Century, it has been estimated that fewer than 1,000 northern elephant seals existed by 1910. In 1922, the Mexican government banned hunting, followed shortly thereafter by the United States government. Since then, the population of northern elephant seals has recovered at an average rate of six percent per year. Today, thanks to government protection and the seals' distant lives at sea, the worldwide population has grown to an estimated 150,000 seals.
After being absent for more than 150 years, elephant seals returned to the sandy beaches on the rocky Point Reyes Headlands in the early 1970s. In 1981, the first breeding pair was discovered near Chimney Rock. Since then, researchers have found that the colony is growing at a dramatic annual average rate of 16 percent. When severe storms occurred in 1992, 1994, and 1998, many pups were killed. During the El Niño winter of 1998, storms and high tides washed away approximately 85% of the 350 young pups before they had learned to swim. Nevertheless, the Point Reyes elephant seal population is between 1,500 and 2,000. Fanning out from their initial secluded spot, the seals have expanded to popular beaches, causing concern for both their safety and that of their human visitors.
Competition for Habitat
Sensitive resources such as birds and plants are also affected by elephant seals. The western snowy plover, a Federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, breeds on few California beaches. Loss of habitat to beachfront development and human recreation has forced elephant seals and plovers to compete for limited protected space. Also, rare plants native to coastal dunes are potentially at risk. Elephant seals and their curious human visitors may physically crush plants that are struggling to remain alive.
The park's task is to balance the expansion of the elephant seal colony while providing for the health of other species. To manage this balance, the park will continue its docent program, which provides visitors with on-site information and safety messages at the overlooks. To anticipate where the elephant seals might expand to next, researchers will attempt to discover why seals prefer to breed on some beaches and not others. This information will allow the park to make responsible choices about appropriate beach use by people, pets, and wildlife.
The Secret Lives of Elephant Seals
Northern elephant seals are mysterious and unique creatures. Elephant seals range from Mexico to Alaska and Hawaii in search of food and spend 80 percent of their life in the open sea. Not only do they spend most of their life in the ocean, 90 percent of that time is spent underwater: eating, sleeping, digesting, and traveling. They are built to survive continuous dives to depths that would squeeze the life out of any other mammal. The average dive reaches 1,000 to 2,000 feet, lasts close to half an hour and is followed by only 3-5 minutes at the surface to breathe. Imagine being able to live in such extremes!
Why do they dive so deep? The oceans are full of food for millions of animals, but relatively few feed at the depths elephant seals prefer. As a result, they face little competition for food. Feeding in almost total darkness, elephant seals use their large eyes and the bioluminescence of some prey, such as octopus and squid, to find food where other predators would not even be able to see. They may use their stiff yet sensitive three to eight inch long whiskers to "feel" some food, such as Pacific hake, skates, rays, shrimp, small sharks and crabs.