As It Happens

Seals took over a California beach during the U.S. shutdown — and they're sticking around

Park employees are setting up tours to have locals view the herds of seals from a distance while they figure out ways to share the beach.

Point Reyes park officials will protect the elephant seals until they leave on their own in the spring

An elephant seal is seen on a beach at Point Reyes National Seashore on Monday in California. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat via AP)
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Story transcript

Residents of a small seaside cape in California are making peace with some newcomers that have arrived on their shores.

A large herd of elephant seals took over Drakes Beach in Inverness, Calif., part of the Point Reyes National Seashore park, which was closed during the U.S. government shutdown.

Nearly 100 seals currently occupy the beach, including newborn pups. So far, none of them have left — and likely won't until spring. While the park has reopened, the beach remain closed.

"We can't have people going onto the beach because of the pups that are nursing there," Park spokesperson John Dell'Osso told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Dell'Osso says their arrival is the result of "a perfect storm of events."

"There was a storm about two weeks ago that came through the San Francisco Bay Area, and it was coupled with very extreme high tides," he said.

"We get those every now and again, and it tends to displace the different colonies of elephant seals we have along our shoreline."

This, combined with a lack of people on the beach due to the shutdown, meant that when the seals were displaced to the waters of Drakes Beach, they could take up space on its shores.

Without tourists and park rangers to discourage them during the government shutdown, elephant seals have expanded their pupping grounds in Point Reyes. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat via AP)

Seals usually come onto shores with a wave, Dell'Osso said. 

"At the point where the water isn't available to push them up the beach, they begin to flop — if you will, for lack of a technical word — further up the beach until they're away from the tide."

Dell'Osso says the seals have shown up on the beach in the past after high tides, but it's limited to a small number of male seals, or bulls.

This time, he says, not only did the bulls show up, but so did pregnant females.

"Before we knew it, some of those pregnant females were giving birth," he said.

'Tremendous' population comeback

Elephant seals spend most of their life in the water, but will come to shore to give birth, breed and molt.

Dell'Osso says the seals will likely stay on the beach until April, when the pups will wean from their mothers.

Until then, he says the park is "experimenting" with allowing the seals to keep the beach. 

Park visitors have been understanding about the situation so far, he said.

A herd of elephant seals are seen along the Drakes Beach, which was closed during partial federal government shutdown. (Submitted by John Dell-Osso/Point Reyes National Seashore)

The elephant seal population is growing in the area. Including the herd on Drakes Beach, the numbers are between 1,500 and 2,000.

Hunters once targeted seals for their oil-rich blubber, in lieu of whales. Throughout the 20th century, their numbers have grown. There's an estimated 150,000 elephant seals worldwide, according to the Marine Mammal Centre, a U.S. conservation group. 

"They've made this tremendous comeback almost near-extinction many decades ago," Dell'Osso said. "There's no reason to try and stop that process."

Making of a 'win-win' situation

In the meantime, National Parks is taking this as an opportunity to educate locals about their new neighbours.

"We are entrusted by the American people with the National Parks to protect our human history and our national history," Dell'Osso said, "but at the same, time allow opportunities for the public to learn." 

Over the weekend, park officials barricaded a part of the parking lot nearest to the beach, 27 to 37 metres away, and park rangers guided small groups of people through the barricade to have a look at the seals.

Some 60 adult seals and 35 pups currently occupy the beach, officials say. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat via AP)

Dell'Osso said allowing the seals to have the beach while the public can come look at the animals is a "win-win."

At the same time, he points to nearby, vacant beaches that the seals could occupy.

"We hope that they would agree with us and start to use some of those other areas," he said.

Written by Zahraa Hmood with files from Reuters. Interview with John Dell'Osso produced by Allie Jaynes. 

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