Behind the Scenes — San Simeon Elephant Seals

What is soft, made of fat and smells like rotten eggs?!? Elephant seals!

To be frank, as a team, we weren’t sure where this second project was going to take us. On the day the project was assigned, Emily Hillsinger suggested a story about the elephant seals, who were migrating to San Simeon for mating season.  The rest of the team agreed it would be a great feature story to highlight what elephant seals are, why they migrate to the Central Coast, and where tourists and locals can go experience the seals. In searching for a more particular angle, I suggested we incorporate how climate change has affected elephant seals and their habitats. Carly Quinn also recommended we incorporate some guidelines on how to protect and properly interact with Elephant Seals upon visiting San Simeon. I said,

After several years of driving up the coast to watch the seals flop along the beach, it was fascinating to gain insight on what these seals were doing and to share how we can protect these cute, but large mammals. We spend time hiking and basking in the outdoors as Cal Poly students, yet forget about our one-of-a-kind, tourist attracting marine life.”

Elephant Seals sunbathing and preparing for mating season at Piedras Blancas.

After the project was assigned, the team collaborated to create a list of questions regarding what we don’t and should know about elephant seals. What we immediately concluded was that we didn’t know much about the topic despite living in the area for four plus years, and we assumed the Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo community also lacked extensive knowledge on these marine mammals located about 40 miles north of San Luis Obispo.

By the third day the project was assigned, it was time to have all our interviews and sources lined up. Through engaging with a few community members previously, we decided to reach out to Cal Poly Professors who researched or specialized in Marine Mammal Science. Hasan Iqbal said we should also schedule interviews with San Simeon State Park officials, while Hillsinger suggested contacting environmental clubs on campus and speaking to the Friends of the Elephant Seals — the docents of the Elephant Seal Visitor Center. Hillsinger said,

It is interesting to know how much research people have on the elephant seals. It’s good to know that seal population is on the rise because humans took the time to address the problem and figure out a solution. Also the seals are so cute and have such personality!

Visitors at the Elephant Seals Boardwalk have a chance to speak to a docent and learn all about these mammals at Piedras Blancas in San Simeon, California.

Unfortunately, the San Simeon State Park and Marine Mammal Center of San Luis Obispo did not respond to our outreach. However, our team wanted to emphasize what the environmental impacts are regarding these animals. After being redirected and placed in contact with other marine mammal specialists, Quinn was able to meet with Dr. Lars Tomanek, a Cal Poly Professor in the Biological Sciences Department. While the seal population has remained stable over the years, Tomanek was able to teach us how climate change effects these marine mammals’s environment and food resource. Tomanek said,

The seals that depend on the Arctic ice are starting to see a decline because they do not have the habitat that they need to give birth and protect themselves from killer whales or polar bears. There are some drastic changes that are occurring in the Arctic Sea right now, which are going to have a ripple effect on these populations and ecosystems.

Tomanek emphasized the importance of reducing plastic-use as one of the key ways in protecting not only elephant seals, but marine mammals as a whole. Our team was then able to head out to the Elephant Seal Boardwalk to speak with one of the volunteer docents, Tim Postiff. As a docent for The Friends of the Elephant Seals, Postiff provided us with insight on what will occur within the next few months, as the seals transition into pupping season. We learned that the pups are left safely on the shore while the males and females forage for food, which is only part of the facts, guidelines and knowledge Postiff shares daily with tourists who visit the seals from around the world.

The Northern Elephant Seals enter mating season during the month of October.

We didn’t know what to expect from researching elephant seals or our second project, “I had my first camera problems experience, but I feel more confident about dealing with the unexpected going forward!” Quinn said, “Going out to San Simeon was beautiful and the elephant seals were very cool to learn about.”

We enjoyed educating ourselves and the community on marine mammal life.  Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, and the State of California all work together to conserve the Piedras Blancas area and continue research for the protection of these seal pups and adults. “I’m happy to have an opportunity alongside my team  to write about the Central Coast’s famed Elephant Seals and shed a light on environmental issues that could potentially affect them in the future,”  Iqbal said. Our team enjoyed the light-heartedness of this story and hope to portray that through our multimedia, feature story.