During the government shutdown, while nobody was looking, a herd of elephant seals took over a popular California beach and forced authorities to close the area to visitors.
The opportunistic animals are iconic residents of Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County near San Francisco, where they can usually be seen lounging on the sand from afar.
But with National Park Service employees furloughed, and no one around to wrangle them, 50 to 60 seals moved into Drakes Beach, known by locals for its expansive shoreline and pristine views.
Had the shutdown not occurred, “we probably would have tried to move the seals further away from the parking area,” John Dell’Osso, chief of interpretation and resource education at Point Reyes National Seashore, told Motherboard in an email.
“This would be done by a standard practice of using tarps and waving them at the seals to the point where they turn around and go further down the beach,” Dell’Osso explained.
A mid-January storm, coupled with extreme tides called “king tides,” drove the seals away from Chimney Rock, a secluded point on the peninsula where the animals tend to congregate, Dell’Osso theorized.
The herd then moved north to Drakes Beach, knocking down a fence and colonizing the parking lot of the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, SFGate reported on Tuesday.
At least two adult bulls, which can weigh up to 4,500 pounds, were spotted in the parking lot. “One underneath a picnic table and one on the accessible ramp to the visitor center,” Dell’Osso said.
Staff closed the beach access road when the government reopened after President Trump announced on Friday that he’d pause the shutdown for three weeks. Some of the female seals are pregnant, and at least 35 pups have been born on the beach in the past two weeks, Dell’Osso said.
Elephant seals are perennial residents of Point Reyes National Seashore. The animals breed and pup in winter, which is followed by molting season and hauling-out, when the seals will spend much of their time on land (most of their lives are spent underwater).
The species was nearly hunted to extinction for its blubber during the 20th century. Elephant seals disappeared from the Point Reyes Headlands for more than 150 years but returned in the early 1970s. Government protection and hunting bans have allowed their populations to recover, though colonies are still threatened by habitat loss.
The park, which is part of the National Park System, receives millions of visitors each year, many of whom are there to see the seals. During the 35-day-long shutdown, access to Point Reyes National Seashore was limited due to human waste and safety concerns.
Staff are still considering how to manage the beach now that seals have taken over. Guided tours of the new colony could be one solution, Dell’Osso told SFGate.
“On the weekends when we are at our busiest, we have docents and park rangers on the beach to make sure [tourists] do not get too close to the seals, for the safety of people and the protection of the resources.”