Life and Death, and Harbor Seals
(This guest blog was written by Thom Akeman, a volunteer with Bay Net and a resident of Pacific Grove. Bay Net naturalists interpret wildlife for visitors along the shores of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. )
This spring started out as the best harbor seal pupping season on the Monterey Peninsula in years. In 2013, too many people climbed down onto beaches near the Aquarium, in Pacific Grove, where mother harbor seals came ashore to deliver and raise their pups. The result: pups abandoned by their mothers before they could survive on their own.
Community volunteers put a lot of hours into getting a new city ordinance and temporary fencing to protect defenseless seal pups during these critical months. The temporary fencing went up shortly after the first successful birth in late March. After that came a regular parade of new pups! On Easter Sunday 2014, we counted 64 newly born harbor seals on the beaches of Pacific Grove, with only a few losses.
It was a glorious Easter. Lots of still-pregnant seals were rolling around on the beaches beside the nursing moms and healthy pups. Then about noon, unexpectedly high surf sent waves crashing onto the beaches. New new pups who weren’t yet strong swimmers were pulled into the churning ocean, along with their moms.
Spectators on the bluffs watched in silence as moms and pups went through life-or-death struggles to stay together in the powerful waves. The last pair to be seen in one area were separated for several long minutes, fate unknown. When the pup landed on a narrow sand strip, and a minute later the mom emerged to reunite with the little guy, applause broke out along the shoreline. The mom and pup rested a bit, then took off and surfaced on a larger beach nearby 90 minutes later.
At the end of the day, volunteer docents with a local organization named Bay Net found 51 of the 64 seal pairs back in one of the rookeries. A search of isolated beaches the next day found four of the missing pups; and five more the day after that.
The search continues for the missing pups. Meanwhile, many still-pregnant seals deliver new babies on the beach – in sight of people, but safely out of reach thanks to the temporary barriers.
And if the wind and waves cooperate, this could still be the best harbor seal pupping season in years.
Listen to our Coastal Trail Audio Tour and learn more about where to see harbor seal pups at the Pocket Beach near Hopkins Marine Station.
Find out how to get involved with Bay Net.
Photos courtesy Kim M. Worrell.