Changing Elephant Seal Main Colony Monitoring Protocols

A view from above of the main elephant seal colony at Point Reyes Headlands.

A view from above of the main elephant seal colony at Point Reyes Headlands.


Quick Facts


A Call to Action
Action Item:
Play it Safe
Year Accomplished:

For more than 20 years, Point Reyes biologists have hiked down the 600-foot-tall cliffs of the Point Reyes Headlands to the isolated pocket beaches below to monitor northern elephant seals that have hauled their huge bodies out of the ocean to breed and molt. Elephant seals, hunted to near extinction in the 1800s, established a colony at Point Reyes in1981. In 1988, biologists began hiking to the colony to apply flipper tags to adults and pups. While the seals could be counted more safely from higher up on the cliffs, applying the tags on the beach allowed NPS to better understand the population dynamics. Over time, the steep ridgeline down to the beach degraded and became increasingly dangerous.

In 2011, we participated in Operational Leadership training. After the training, it was obvious to us that a risk assessment was needed for descending to the elephant seal colony. Nate Knight, Law Enforcement ranger and Operational Leadership facilitator, led us through an on-site GAR Risk Assessment (a high-level risk assessment tool, assigning a value of green, amber, or red). Initially, our low GAR score was due to our familiarity with the access route, leading us to understate some of the risks. Part of this comfort level included our assumptions about how search and rescue efforts occur in remote, coastal settings. Nate had never been down to this site, and his review allowed us to see where our attitude of, "this is the way we've done it for years", was masking some very dangerous risks, including our incorrect assumptions about the ease and speed of rescue efforts. We determined that the physical risks for this activity outweighed the scientific gains. Consequently, a collective decision was made to no longer go down to the colony. Luckily, as the elephant seal population grew over the past 30 years, they colonized another, more easily accessible, site where we can continue to tag the seals.

This was a great lesson learned for all involved. Sometimes you need to step back and take a realistic look at the project or even get an outside opinion. Following a risk assessment model helps you to break down the project and identify threats. Safety is key in all of our jobs and this process empowered us to make wise decisions.