Thursday, April 7, 2011

Crime on the beach

Knowing that the crime of three elephant seals shot in 2008 has been solved is a relief to me. I’m gratified to be the one to tell Cambria the story of what happened and how it was resolved.

That Saturday began without portent of the tragedies to come. My husband and I had moved to Cambria the previous October and I immediately signed up for training as an elephant seal docent. Friends of the Elephant Seal holds its annual training in the fall, preparing new docents before the winter mating season starts.

Every Monday morning I went out and talked to visitors about the elephant seals. Spending time out there every week showed me the constant but regular changes on the beach. They come and go individually, so the seals on the beach are always changing. One week it’s all weaner pups, the next it’s their older cousins. Being a local can make it easy to let visits slide, bringing out-of-town visitors out for special occasions but not visiting more frequently.

People often ask, What’s the best time to see them? My answer is always, Today.

As a freelance writer, I had a book contract with deadlines to meet. Leaving the computer behind to go outside and watch the elephant seals was a welcome break. Strolling back and forth watching over the seals, enjoying all the fresh air and sunshine I could absorb suited me fine. People asked such great questions: one little girl asked me, Are you their guardian?

The news of the seals shot dead that morning came to me in the afternoon. I was watching the Kentucky Derby on tv. The reporters profiled the horses and their trainers, finding human interest in hard-luck stories of triumph over adversity. That day, the featured horse was a wonderful filly, Eight Belles. Fillies (young female horses) rarely run in the Derby, but she was exceptional. She’d outdistanced her competitors and set records. The spotlight was on her.

I relaxed on the couch to watch the race, the colorful spectators known for outlandish hats in the May warmth of Churchill Downs. The band played My Old Kentucky Home, lulling us into its Southern charm. The trumpet played the call to the post, and they were off, for the “most exciting two minutes in sports.”

Eight Belles ran her heart out, finishing second to Big Brown, then stumbled and collapsed. Both front legs broken, she was euthanized as soon as the vet could get to her. Events had interrupted recreation with tragic reality.

I watched the events unfold with horror, when the phone rang. Another docent informed me of the seal shootings. The smooth and simple world of watching animals was shattered.

No one remembered elephant seals ever being shot. They rarely come in contact with humans. No one has any problem with them. They have colonized the beach at Piedras Blancas, but it’s remote locatin takes them out of direct contact with humans. Since the boardwalk was built, people are able to watch the seals and the seals apparently ignore the people. It’s worked out all around. A killing was unprecedented.

I felt shaky going out to greet visitors on Monday. No one had any idea who could have shot the seals. I wondered, would the person return and shoot tourists? Docents? Shooting the seals was like shooting fish in a barrel. They wouldn’t run away or offer any resistance. There’s no sport in it, and no one needs their oil any more. No one has ever hunted them for their meat.

Most visitors to the bluff weren’t aware of the crime. Docents volunteered to bury the carcasses. As time went on, the smell was awful. The docents would bury them, and then the sand would drift off. There was no escaping the reminder of the crime. I never brought the subject up to visitors, but occasionally one asked about it. There was no news of anyone being suspected or arrested.

Because the crime was so unusual, I expected that it would soon be solved. Months went by with no information. Whenever I met anyone who might know anything about the investigation, I asked what they knew. Rangers responded that leads weren’t panning out, the investigation was stalled. The bullets had been recovered, but hadn’t led to a suspect. There was a suspect, but it hadn’t come to anything.

In December 2010, I contacted Roy Torres, the lead investigator. After some negotiating, NOAA gave him permission to disclose details of the investigation.

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