Columnist Judy Salamacha

Friends of the Elephant Seals Turns 20

Then & Now

By Judy Salamacha

Congratulations to the Friends of the Elephant Seals on its 20th Anniversary, greeting more than 2.2 million worldwide visitors stopping by the protective viewpoint just south of Point Piedras Blancas Lighthouse to check out thousands of gigantic marine mammals living a stone’s throw off Highway 1.

Lynette Harrison, co-president with Tim Bridwell of the Friends, has been involved since 1997. “Our friend Dick Macedo introduced Alan and I to the elephant seals before there was an organization,” she says. “I kept coming out to see them and studying their survival story. I knew what I wanted to do when I retired and planned our visits around my scheduled docent time.”

Harrison’s volunteer story is not unique. Board member Bette Bardeen has been a docent since 2008. “I have been fascinated with elephant seals since I traveled to San Miguel Island to see them over 30-years ago,” she explains, “sleeping on a boat and hiking a long way. I love talking to people from all over the world — two veterinarians from Moldova were some of my most remote visitors.”

The northern elephant seal’s survival story is compelling. During the18th and until the 19th Centuries, the elephant seal was hunted extensively for the oil made from their blubber. They were almost extinct by 1884 with as few as 20 individuals known to survive. A Smithsonian expedition discovered eight on Guadalupe Island. 

Somehow the elephant seal survived and was finally protected by the Mexican government in 1922 and the United States with the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In 1990, a few relocated to SLO County’s coast. The first pup born was in 1992 and since the seals usually return to their birthplace to mate annually, by 1995 a growing rookery became noticeable from Highway 1.

As more humans stopped by to watch and photograph the elephant seals, the wildlife protection agencies realized they had a safety problem. An “Elephant Seal Management Plan” was developed, including developing a nonprofit organization to educate visitors.

Thanksgiving Weekend in 1997, the first volunteers talked to over 1,000 visitors and by March 1998, the Friends group was official. Membership and expertise has grown just as the rookery has expanded to a 7-mile area with over 23,000 elephant seals birthing, cavorting as children do, blustering even fighting — living life in full view of those who visit and watch live on a webcam.

Phil Adams, author of “The Elephant Seal,” was on the bluff with the first docent class and is still active. “I have always enjoyed viewing wildlife in their habitat,” Adams says. “When elephant seals started landing on the beach, many people were going down and getting too close and disturbing them. [As a docent] I knew I would be able to talk to people, promote a goal of mine, and convince people that because of the trials all animals go through, voluntary respectful viewing attitudes are crucial for their survival.”

The Piedras Blancas Rookery is a unique viewing opportunity. In San Francisco, visitors must hike to a rookery, and at the Santa Cruz Research Center, appointments are required. 

Ginny Drew, a docent since 2012, says, “When I first visited the bluff I couldn’t believe that these amazing marine mammals resided just a few steps from the parking lot. After watching a pup born just a few yards away from me, I felt that I had just experienced a National Geographic moment. I feel that same joy today, as I watch people from all over the world experience that same amazement.”

The Friends group is currently seeking volunteers for its fall training session beginning Sept. 7. 

“Our training program is one thing we do well,” Harrison says. “After applying [www.elephantseal.org] there is a screening and interview process to see if we’re a match and after learning about the seals life cycle, we celebrate the class in a formal graduation.”

Brenda Prince graduated with the 2016 class. “I can only speak from my heart,” she says. “All I saw were big, brown eyes with so much mystery that kept calling me back. I saw strength and the desire to survive. I have benefited from being a docent, and I feel if I can humanize them and bring their life story and journey of survival to one visitor I have done a good deed. And if I can incorporate their attributes into my daily life, I know I will be able to face any challenge that life presents.”

The Friends of the Elephant Seals and its partners are currently experiencing an extreme challenge. As the rookery thrives, the businesses that have traditionally supported the group are currently struggling, endangered by significantly fewer visitors since the closure of Highway 1 last February. 

Volunteers count all visitors they speak to. This year through May 61,533 visitors were counted compared to 83,169 in 2016 and 68,246 in 2015. Not only have donations and merchandise sales slowed for the Friends, funds available from the San Simeon Tourism Alliance and community partners have decreased.

As the Friends marks its 20-year history of hosting visitors at the rookery this columnist is suggesting we as fellow beneficiaries of the elephant seal’s chosen habitat, might visit often in 2017-2019 until visitors find their way back on Highway 1 — maybe buy a plush elephant seal with big brown eyes. 

As Abby Adams, docent since 2013, says, “Where else in the world would I have the opportunity to explain the incredibly unique life of this sea mammal to people from all over the world, guiding elementary school students on school field trips? [Maybe] some students are inspired to become scientists one day.”

Let’s do lunch — and a tour by an FES volunteer!

Freelance writer, columnist and author of “Colonel Baker’s Field: An American Pioneer Story,” Judy Salamacha’s Then & Now column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: judysalamacha@gmail.com or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.

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