Monday, April 25, 2011

Harbor Seal pups

A woman reported a Harbor Seal pup to the desk clerk at the Blue Whale Motel on Moonstone Beach Drive. The desk clerk reported it to the Marine Mammal Center Friday morning about 10:30. We went out to see what the situation was.

Before we got there, the center called again to tell us the woman was very upset about the abandoned pup, anxious for our arrival. We got that call as we arrived at the boardwalk. We hurried down to the beach.

She and her two daughters, about 13 and 10, waved frantically to us as we arrived. We climbed over the rocks, slippery with seaweed. It was a low tide. The pup was beached at the edge of a tidepool. He was alert and cried a few times. He appeared uninjured.

The girls saw the pup as they walked on the beach with their mother. The younger girl was startled by the pup’s cry. Harbor seal pups' cries sound like a baby. The girls and their mother were alarmed to find him abandoned on the rocks.

He appeared fine to me, so I reassured them and asked them to retreat to the bluff so that we wouldn’t scare the mother away. I pointed out that it was low tide and she might need to wait for the tide to come back in so that she could swim to him. She might have placed him there when the water was higher.

We closed the stairway to the beach and asked other beach walkers to stay away from the area. We watched from the bluff.

An adult seal swam in, lifting her head from the water and looking around. People were still on the beach, and she didn’t stay long. The pup was resting.

After the rest of the beach walkers left, she returned and swam further into the tidepool area. By now, the pup was swimming around the tidepool, splashing in circles. She alerted to his activity as soon as she was near enough to hear and see him, and boosted herself over the rocks to get to the tidepool in which he was stranded. They reunited happily, and she guided him over the rocks, back into the channel that led to the open ocean. She nudged him around to the rocks further out and helped him up.

She was an attendant and concerned mother. She took care of him as soon as the pressure of people on the beach was relieved.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. We spoke to several people along the way. All were delighted to witness this mother-pup reunion.

I didn't have my camera with me. It's just as well, because this way I got to watch the whole drama unfold. I felt instrumental in allowing these animals to live their lives.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Plastic entanglement

The seal with the plastic rope embedded in his neck, stretching his neck up at right, has become the focus of rescue attempts. A team of rescuers attempted to separate him from the group and cut the rope, but they weren't able to get close enough to him. The rope is very deep in his flesh, making it difficult to get in there and clip it so that it will fall off.

The Marine Mammal Center sent a veterinarian down to look over him and see if she can figure out a solution. She'll be here for the next three days. I'm asking my angels to watch over him and guide him to a location where rescuers can help him.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Noise harms squid, too

Humboldt squid are the main prey of elephant seals. Recent research is revealing the damage done to squid hearing by loud noises in the ocean.

Elephant seals don't use echolocation the way whales and dolphins do, but no one knows exactly how they navigate or hunt. Environmental impact on their main prey would certainly ripple out to them. The prey have to do well in order for their predators to succeed.

Life in the ocean is harsh. The increasing noise is a serious problem for marine mammals of all kinds. Garbage causes deadly entanglements. This seal, in the upper right of the photo, has been on the beach for several days, with a green plastic rope cutting into her neck. She has remained close to other seals, making a rescue impossible. If she gets away from the group, Marine Mammal Center rescuers may be able to get to her and clip the plastic off, freeing her.

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.