Out of all the pinnipeds in Point Reyes, one of the most charismatic, also the one that draws the most visitors is the elephant seal, just because there's so much story to them and they're just so much more active. They really put on a show, basically, with all of the fighting, and the interactions, and the pups. There's just a lot more to see.
Elephant seals used to prehistorically be in California. So they were hunted almost to extinction. They're a great story of a species to recover with simple protection by places like national parks.
Right now, in Point Reyes is their breeding season, which is during the winter. And so a lot is going on at that time. Males show up first. They compete with each other to figure out who's going to be the alpha. Then the females show up. Within a few days, they give birth. They nurse their pups for about 28 days on average. Then they're going to wean their pup, and then they're going to leave. But while that's all going on, the males are still constantly fighting each other.
We study elephant seals and we monitor them. That means we study them year after year. And we put that data together so we can understand what's the trend of the population. Is it going up? Is it going down? Is it flat?
To do the surveys of elephant seals in Point Reyes, we have two strategies. The easiest way to count the seals is actually to be up above, so to be up on cliffs. And we're using a spotting scope. And that gives us a much wider, more on top view of the animals. And so we'll use spotting scopes or binoculars.
But sometimes we have areas where we just can't really get that kind of a viewpoint. And so we actually have to be on the beach with the animals. And we're really trying to do accurate counting. And we want to make sure we don't miss, and especially the pups that might be hiding behind the females.
Another part of our monitoring process is tagging the weaned pup. And a weaned pup is what the word sounds like, a pup that has been weaned, so the mom is no longer nursing it. And for now it's off on its own, away from the harem. And so we're going to go and try to apply a flipper tag. And we wait for that to happen because we don't want to interrupt that bonding process or the nursing process between the mom and her pup.
The best way to tag an elephant seal is to sneak up on one that's asleep and do a real quick punch into their flipper. Most of the time, they do react. It's just like if you were asleep and someone came up and pinched you. You would probably react.
So it wakes them up. They might squeal a little bit because of their surprise. But usually they calm down within a few seconds or a few minutes after it happens. Five, 10 minutes later, most the time they're back asleep.
Well, we went through that question. Why tag elephant seals? And we decided that we would tag them because it helps us to understand the exchange between the other colonies because we share our data with the other researchers at the other colonies in central California. And by doing so, we understand better the whole population of central California, which is the leading edge of growth for elephant seals.
Tags can tell you about survivorship. You know the age of the animal, you know the location where it was born. They can tell you a lot of things. Most of the tagged animals we see are from Point Reyes. That tells us that it's a more stable population and animals are coming back to Point Reyes to breed.
Elephant seals definitely need a safe place to come raise their pups. The pups can't really swim at birth for at least the few first weeks. So they need an area on a beach where they're not going to get washed out by waves. They need the safety of the sand, and they need the safety from people.
So we close the beaches to people because people are dangerous to elephant seals and elephant seals are dangerous to people. If people disturb elephant seals, that can cause them to displace pups and females and males. And if people get too close to females, they can attack them and bite them. So it's best for both to have these beaches protected.
As biologists, we do need to go into the colony where most people can't access. But we are trained to recognize for animal behavior. Also, we know how to act around them. So we know when to keep our distance and when we can maybe get a little bit closer. So we're trained really to make sure that we are not causing any disturbance that is not necessary.
Marine ecosystems are important, and it's important for us to understand them better because it's hard to study them. And so we may know a bit about the surface of the ocean, but not much about the deep ocean. And elephant seals are the bridge between the surface and the deep ocean because they dive so deep.
And when somebody goes to the beach, they just see the ocean's surface. They don't understand the depth of it. When you look at an elephant seal, and you think this animal's dove a mile under water, what is it seeing down there? How can it stay down there for an hour and a half?
So understanding the ecology of national parks is vital to what we do. It's vital to what I do as a park manager. When I'm making decisions about how we're going to manage the park, how we plan for the future, how we insure these animals are here for future generations to enjoy, how we protect people today, understanding what's going on the ground with the wildlife is absolutely critical. And that's when inventory and monitoring does for us.
The inventory and monitoring program is not a new concept. It evolved over 20 plus years in the Park Service. But we're the leaders of many agencies in implementing it. And the data that we're getting back is already being used to help us to be better stewards. It's a fantastic program, it's a model for the nation, and we do it with a little money and a lot of leverage with partners, and friends, and citizen scientists, and volunteers. Everybody's a steward.
- 7 minutes, 1 second
Point Reyes National Seashore is "like pinniped heaven." Out of all of the pinniped species that use the park's coastline, elephant seals are the most charismatic. Discover how and why National Park Service scientists study the elephant seals at Point Reyes year after year.
Is that a seal or a sea lion? See and hear key differences between these marine mammals, and characteristics that make each unique. Also, get a glimpse of how San Francisco Bay Area National Parks keep track of the seal species that make their homes along our coasts.
- 3 minutes, 52 seconds
In the late 1800s, American whalers hunted northern elephant seals to near-extinction. This documentary describes how the resurgence of their population at Point Reyes, and throughout the Pacific, demonstrates the success of marine conservation laws.
- 9 minutes, 34 seconds
KQED's Quest Program
Into the Deep with Elephant Seals - initially aired on May 4, 2011
Listen to sounds in an elephant seal rookery, which includes males, females, and young (pups). The loud, low-frequency sounds are those of the bull (male) elephant seals.
- 1 minute, 4 seconds
Elephant Seals Battle for Love With Mating Songs and Bravado - initially aired on February 9, 2015
Last updated: March 20, 2019