Elephant Seals Blanket California Beaches

At this time of year, beaches near San Simeon in Central California are overrun by elephant seals. These 2,000-pound beasts used to be an endangered species. Now there are so many elephant seals crowding the beaches, they're starting to venture toward the nearby highway.

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Now, what happens to an endangered species when it makes a spectacular comeback? That's the topic of this week's Science Out of the Box.

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SEABROOK: Take elephant seals. Every year on beach in central California is overrun by thousands of these giant animals. The mating season is now winding down. This year it set a new record for the number of elephant seals hitting the beach and the number of baby seals born. There were so many crowding the beaches near San Simeon that they started to venture toward the nearby highway, and that wasn't good for man or car or beast.

David Gorn reports.

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DAVID GORN: There's an amazing sight along the remote stretch of beach north of San Luis Obispo. About 6,000 to 8,000 northern elephant seals jammed onto a narrow strip of sand. These are huge animals - some of the 16 feet long and 5,000 pounds of blubber and muscle. There isn't an inch between them, and the pack of them stretches on and on along the beach. And these are loud animals.

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GORN: Now, that's not flatulence and belching, that's lovemaking. These elephant seals have migrated all the way from the Gulf of Alaska. They come to this spot every winter to breed - and to fight off other elephant seals - and then, says long-time elephant seal observer, Lou Tornadski(ph), to breed some more.

Mr. LOU TORNADSKI (Seal Observer): And it's a sort of all basic. So, you have all the ingredients. There's conflict, there's lust, there's birthing. It's kind of like a Mel Gibson movie without the bad dialogue.

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GORN: In fact, this chaos is like the elephant seal version of spring break. And just like unruly college kids, these wild animals can get into trouble.

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GORN: Sometimes these elephant seals try to run across the road. Only this road is Highway 1.

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Mr. BRIAN HATFIELD (Marine Biologist): You know, it's a real hazard to both wildlife and the people driving.

GORN: That's marine biologist Brian Hatfield. He says that even though there have only been a handful of car collisions with elephant seals over the years, the problem is becoming much bigger now. There are so many more seals now, and the fences containing them have begun to fall apart. Hatfield found himself trying to herd a 1,500-pound seal back across the road. And he found out that you can't really tell an elephant seal where to go.

Mr. HATFIELD: If you get them to move in the direction you want it to but then it seems like they make up their own mind.

GORN: It took the combined forces of State Parks, Fish and Game, the Marine Mammal Center, and the Highway Patrol to stop traffic for a few hours one morning and shoo the reluctant beast back to the beach.

But other incidents have been less controlled. There was the famous night when a family of tourists had their Nissan Pathfinder pulverized. And when the passenger in the car saw this 10-foot-high one-ton pile of blubber with large teeth rearing up in the high beams, she thought it was a monster.

Ms. PATRICIA MORRIS (Biologist): I can believe that in the dark. And if you're not somebody who's very familiar with the seals it would look like a monster.

GORN: Biologist Patricia Morris works with elephant seals farther north near Santa Cruz. She says that usually elephant seals end up on extremely remote beaches. The San Simeon beaches are the only elephant seal breeding grounds right up against the highway.

But it's not just the highway and the occasional one-ton road kill that Morris is worried about. With so many elephant seals in close proximity to so many people, it's only a matter of time, she says, before something bad happens.

Ms. MORRIS: Sooner or later somebody's going to be killed directly by an elephant seal. It will happen some day. You know, there are always people who got to go press their luck.

GORN: Because resting elephant seals can look so calm and placid lying in the sand, people get really close to them, Morris says. People forget they're dealing with wild animals. Very large wild animals.

Cal Transit's working on making it safer by reinforcing the fences to keep elephant seals away from the highway. And, of course, new fences are eventually going to have to be built because as the elephant seal population continues to expand, those seals are moving farther and farther down the coast.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

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