How California’s Elephant Seals Made a Remarkable Recovery
Hunted nearly to extinction, northern elephant seals, native to the waters off the West Coast, now number more than 175,000.
PESCADERO, Calif. — Before summiting the slippery beachside dunes, wind-whipped sand spraying my face, I could hear what was on the other side.
Raspy grunts, high-pitched mews, guttural barks and the occasional roar bellowed toward my group of hikers at Año Nuevo State Park, a remote strip of coastal bluffs about 60 miles south of San Francisco. Once we crossed over to the wide sandy beach, the source of the commotion became obvious: hundreds of elephant seals, their slick blubbery bodies splaying out on the land or flopping into the chilly waters of the Pacific.
On the afternoon last month that I visited, 1,425 seals were sunbathing, diving and wrestling in the park, one of their major breeding grounds along the California coast. Tens of thousands of seals arrive on the Golden State’s beaches each year to mate, give birth and nurse — an impressive sight, and a testament to one of the most successful conservation stories in California history.
“They were thought to be extinct,” said Adam Ratner, associate director of conservation education at the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, an animal hospital that cares for wild elephant seals. “We basically had a second chance with this species — and what’s amazing about marine mammals and other wildlife is how resilient they are.”
Northern elephant seals, which can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and are named for the males’ distinctive trunk-like noses, live in the eastern Pacific Ocean. They spend most of their time diving for fish and squid in the deep seas between Alaska and Mexico but come to land to breed and molt. (Southern elephant seals, their close relatives, are slightly larger and found around Antarctica.)
The seals were hunted so much for their blubber, coveted by humans as a source of fuel, that between 1884 and 1892, not a single northern elephant seal was seen anywhere in the world, according to the National Park Service.
Then a small colony of elephant seals was found on Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California in Mexico. After laws were enacted in Mexico and the United States banning hunting of elephant seals, that colony — estimated to have dwindled to fewer than 100 animals — was able to keep reproducing, and the population rebounded.
Elephant seals started popping up in places they had long abandoned or had never been sighted before, as they sought more beach space for their annual breeding. Elephant seals recolonized the Channel Islands in California following federal protection in the 1930s, and were spotted at Año Nuevo, along the wind-swept San Mateo coast, in 1955. In later decades, they spread to Point Reyes in Marin County, the Big Sur Coast and farther south toward San Luis Obispo.
“It’s a fabulous success story,” said Kathleen Curtis, president of Friends of the Elephant Seal, a nonprofit organization based in San Simeon, Calif., home to what’s now the biggest elephant seal colony on the mainland. “It’s such a privilege to be able to peek into elephant seals’ lives the way we can,” she said.
These huge, magnificent mammals still face some threats. There are, of course, disturbances from humans, as the seals encroach on familiar beaches. There are also concerns about their vulnerability to disease, given the population’s lack of genetic diversity: They all descend from the same small group of seals discovered a century ago.
More on California
- L.A. Schools Strike: The union representing 30,000 education workers reached a tentative deal with the Los Angeles Unified School District, following a three-day strike that had closed hundreds of campuses
- Mansions at Bargain Prices: Wealthy home sellers in Los Angeles are slashing prices and sweetening deals, eager to move their properties off the market before a new “mansion tax” goes into effect on April 1.
- Plane Spotting: Plane spotters are everywhere in the world, but dramatically so in Los Angeles, where one is primed to view the everyday cinematically.
- A Rare Phenomenon: An inlet on Lake Tahoe has frozen over for what appears to be the first time in three decades, leaving some locals in awe.
And there are new, growing problems linked to climate change.
When atmospheric rivers slammed California in January, an estimated 100 newborn seals at Point Reyes National Seashore died, as king tides overwhelmed the beaches. Pups don’t learn how to swim until they are a few months old, and many were too young when the storms hit, according to Sarah Codde, a marine ecologist at the park.
Rising tides in general threaten the habitats of these animals, many of which breed on narrow beaches backed by steep cliffs, with little space to retreat from the water. After the January storms, many pregnant seals at Point Reyes moved to previously uninhabited beaches in the park, Codde said, but there are only so many easily accessible places to relocate to.
Still, the elephant seal population is, for the most part, booming. There are now believed to be 175,000 of the seals worldwide, and they have even begun to occupy breeding grounds outside of what’s considered their historic range. Elephant seal colonies have recently appeared in Humboldt County, and even as far north as Oregon and Vancouver Island, Canada.
“Now we think the elephant seal population is greater than it ever was before,” Codde told me. “We expect them to keep increasing and keep expanding, because nothing is really holding them back.”
How to see elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park, Point Reyes or Piedras Blancas in San Simeon.
“That’s what makes California so special: From San Francisco, you can go see any of these three major mainland rookeries within a one-day drive,” Ratner told me. “You can’t say that about a lot of prominent wildlife.”
Those are the largest mainland colonies. The absolute largest elephant seal colony is in Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Ventura. Here’s how to see them there.
Don’t have time to visit? Friends of the Elephant Seal has a live cam of the seals.
The rest of the news
Student housing: Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed delaying for a year $1.2 billion in loans and grants that were pledged to build much needed student housing, citing the state’s budget deficit, CalMatters reports.
Silicon Valley Bank fallout: The Federal Reserve is facing criticism over its handling of Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse, and regulators are auctioning off remaining parts of the bank.
Follow the latest financial coverage from The Times.
Salmon fishing: For the second time in history, salmon fishing is banned off the California coast. The decision will have economic consequences for many who depend on the fishing season, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Changing course: Newsom announced Wednesday that he was backing away from his call for state lawmakers to cap oil company profits and instead proposed that the Energy Commission hold the industry accountable, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Ambassador: The Senate confirmed Eric Garcetti, the former mayor of Los Angeles, to be the U.S. ambassador to India.
L.A.U.S.D. strike: A three-day walkout of as many as 65,000 workers that would shut down Los Angeles public schools is scheduled to start Tuesday, The Los Angeles Times reports.
San Bernardino snow: Robert Rice was used to solving his own problems. Then an intense snowstorm in Southern California threatened to keep him from seeing his wife in her final days.
Renaming: Fresno County is preparing to sue the state of California over a law that requires a term that is widely considered a slur to be removed from geographic features and place names throughout the state by 2025, The Fresno Bee reports.
Reparations: The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voiced unanimous support for many recommendations made to address reparations, including payments of $5 million to every eligible Black adult in the city, The Associated Press reports.
Remains found: Six bodies and the remains of 154 people were recovered by authorities this month in Hayward after customers said Oceanview Cremations had stopped responding to their calls.
What we’re eating
Classic carrot cake.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Carlos Alcalá, who lives in Sacramento. Alcalá recommends a trip near Lake Tahoe:
“I’m excited about taking a day hike on the Lyons Creek Trail into Desolation Wilderness in late July. By then, this year’s heavy snow should give way to a carpet of flowers — larkspur, columbine, fireweed, lupine, five-spot and more. The snow may also mean that the creek will be running nicely. On warm days, butterflies gather on the trail to pick up minerals. You can end up at Lake Sylvia, a granite bowl with the Crystal Range looming above. Great turnaround spot for picnic lunch.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What we’re reading
Cathleen Schine’s new novel follows a 24-year-old and his grandmother as they ride out the pandemic together in Venice, Calif.
And before you go, some good news
In November 2000, Jeff Valdivia, then a young police officer in Escondido, was called to help with an arrest at a known drug house in the city, which is north of San Diego. Inside the house, he found a sickly 6-week-old baby girl.
The house was dirty, and there was no more than six ounces of baby food in the kitchen. Valdivia hadn’t ever taken a child into protective custody before, but he feared the baby wouldn’t survive if left with her mother.
Twenty-two years later, Valdivia got a call from Shelley Young, who had tracked him down through a records search. Shelley and her husband, Jeff Young, had adopted that baby girl, Natalie, and she had grown up to become healthy and happy — and a new police officer.
Shelley wanted to know if Valdivia would pin Natalie’s deputy badge on her at the graduation ceremony.
Valdivia told The San Diego Union-Tribune that it was the first time in his 26-year career that he was able to see the long-term results of his work.
“You make the best decision you can, you hope you wrote a good report and you hope the system is going to work,” he said. “From there on, it’s out of your hands.”
“You hope for the best, but it’s something you just accept,” he continued. “On this one time where you do get to find out, it’s incredible to know that it worked out, and that this time this little girl grew up in a loving home with amazing parents, and you got to be a little part of that.”
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.