Protection and Conservation of Elephant Seals

Protection and Conservation of Elephant Seals


[MUSIC PLAYING] I think it’s fair to
say that Point Reyes is like pinniped heaven. As you can see from the
beaches out there it, is a magnet for elephant
seals, for harbor seals. It’s just a natural
haven, a natural sanctuary for these animals to come
and rest, and reproduce, and recharge. 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. [MUSIC PLAYING] 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.

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