Posted inEnvironment

Friends of the Elephant Seals is Now Recruiting Winter Volunteer Guides

The Friends of the Elephant Seal (FES) is now recruiting volunteers to become seasonal guides for the 2023 Winter Program at William R. Hearst Memorial Beach in San Simeon.  The male elephant seals that arrive on Hearst Memorial Beach each winter are in a challenging situation. These seals have often lost fights with more dominant male seals at the nearby rookery beaches.  They select this beach to haul out for refuge and recovery.  At the peak of the season there can be over 20 male seals on the beach, each weighing 3000 to 5000 pounds.  The seals often aggressively defend their territory as new seals arrive.

     Hearst Memorial Beach is also a popular public beach that welcomes hundreds of visitors and their pets on busy holiday weekends.  Visitors are often unaware of the seals’ need to rest undisturbed or the potential for aggressive elephant seal behavior.  Winter Guides provide education for beach visitors to prevent disturbances to the seals and to help ensure public safety.

     Guides are asked to commit to volunteering for two four-hour shifts per month from late December through mid-March. The Friends of the Elephant Seal will provide training, guidance, and materials throughout the program.  Guides must be friendly, outgoing, able to stand for three to four hours, and walk on the beach in a variety of weather conditions.  Volunteer Guides must be 18 years of age or older.

     This winter program is a great opportunity to learn more about elephant seal behavior in a unique environment.  Seasonal residents, weekend travelers, couples, students, and full-time employees are encouraged to apply for this short-term volunteer experience.  Be part of the effort to help the general public safely enjoy wildlife and learn about the amazing elephant seals.  Apply online by Monday, October 17, at:  elephantseal.org/become-a-docent/.  For more information, please call 805-924-1628. 

Posted inLocal History

From Yesterday Until Today: Friends of the Elephant Seal

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.