In 1990, elephant seals were first recorded hauling out onto the beaches south of the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. The first elephant seal pup was born at the rookery in February of 1992. By 1996, the number of pups had soared to nearly 1,000 and the colony of seals stretched both southward and northward to beaches adjacent to Highway 1.
People were drawn to the beaches by the unique sight of hundreds of elephant seals. Thousands of traveling visitors stopped, parked illegally, then breached fencing and made their way over private property to view the seals.
Visitors approached the elephant seals for viewing and photo opportunities. Despite signage clearly prohibiting disturbing the seals, people of all ages ventured dangerously close. Some visitors were bitten and required medical care for injuries. Wildlife management agencies were overwhelmed by the number of seal-human interactions and had no clear solutions.
That changed in 1997. Following an exchange of property between the State and the Hearst Corporation, Highway 1 was rerouted to permit construction of a parking area for visitors to safely park. Friends of the Elephant Seal (FES) was formed that year as a non-profit organization with the goal of providing education about the elephant seals and other marine life on California’s Central Coast.
FES scheduled its first orientation meeting for training volunteer guides (docents) on September 10, 1997. Nearly 100 people attended with 90 indicating interest in the training program. Local residents were offended by the harassment of the seals and those attending that first orientation saw an opportunity to improve the situation by becoming FES guides. Because it was not feasible to train that many volunteers at one time, the first training program was limited to a smaller group. On November 2, 1997, the first class of 30 new FES guides graduated. That Thanksgiving weekend, the newly trained guides put on their blue jackets and spoke to over 1,200 visitors.
FES guides had a difficult job in the early years. Designated boardwalks and railings to prevent visitors from going down onto the beach did not exist. Many visitors still wanted to get onto the beach and walk among the seals.
The dedication of the FES guides was inspiring. In 2000, Friends of the Elephant Seal guides received the distinguished National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Environmental Hero Award. Roy Torres, who nominated FES, said: “I can’t say enough about what these people do. They are out there every day in the wind and cold, looking out for the animals and sharing information with the public. They are terrific.”
A major improvement to the viewing site occurred in 2003 with the completion of the first accessible boardwalk with a railing to prevent visitors from going down onto the beach. Before the boardwalks were in place, visitors were causing significant land erosion and destruction of native plants as they walked over the area to find their own viewing location. Today, with the help of volunteers, plants native to the area are recovering.
Since the first days to the present time, volunteer guides answer questions and help visitors get the most from their viewing experience. During its first 20 years of service, FES guides documented having over two million personal visitor contacts at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Viewing Site where public safety and respect for the seals are prime considerations. In November of this year, FES will celebrate 25 years of service.