On a windswept cliff of the Point Reyes National Seashore above hundreds of reclining elephant seals — a tiny science class of two students and their teacher began its weekly tally of the bellowing creatures below.
Unlike most classrooms where smell is usually not a consideration, the wind delivered the elephant seals dramatic aroma to the group’s vantage point.
“The smell was the hardest part,” observed student scientist Luz Torres. “Just to find out that’s their regular smell.”
Torres has gotten to know the smell well — having made weekly trips to the seashore to help count the unique mammal colony which is spread between four sites near Drakes Beach. The group has braved soaking rain, daily squalls and the aforementioned stink to record the animals’ fluctuating numbers for the National Park Service.
“I like aquatic species, I had a couple fish,” Torres revealed, “but i never thought I’d be here counting elephant seals.”
Neither did Torres anticipate she’d get so up-close-and-personal with the creatures, venturing past gates and barriers with the park service’s blessing in order to get close enough to make out the tags on the animals tail with a spotting scope.
“Our key purpose to be looking for tagged animals,” said professor Doreen Gurrola. “It supports the data that the park service is doing.”
Gurrola’s class has visited the site weekly since the first of the year compiling data used by the park service which is keeping tabs on the population. The Pacific Elephant Seal was once hunted to near extinction, dropping to only about 20, but have rebounded into the thousands and continuing to grow. Point Reyes along with Año Nuevo north of Santa Cruz remain two of California’s most populated colonies.
“The populations have been growing,” Gurrola said, “so it’s important to see where that population is growing.”
Biologists with the National Park Service have tagged many of the returning population with colored tags designating where the animal is from. Point Reyes’ tags are pink. On a recent day, Gurrola and her students also recorded tags from the Año Nuevo colony as well as a white tagged female from a colony at San Simeon.
“We want to see what age classes are using which beaches and how often,” Gurrola explained.
Aside from the main colony of hundreds of elephant seals on Drakes Beach, the professor and her students roamed the three ancillary beaches where a smattering of elephant seals had hauled out and were slumbering in the sand. A count from one nearby outlook identified 12 live sea lions and four dead pups. The two students noted the macabre finding with the clinical demeanor of a doctor.
“There’s a lot of pup mortality but you can’t prevent it,” said student Sheridan Wilner. “It’s wildlife. We’re just here to observe it.”
On this day in early April, the massive and territorial male elephant seals had already moved on leaving mothers, the young and the newborns full run of the beach.
Even though technology such as transmitters and mounted cameras have taken the study of the creatures to new levels, there was still no replacement for a set of eyes to count and record behavior.
The park service will incorporating the student’s data into its own, expanding its ability to keep an accurate grasp of the population. Gurrola said the students would compile their observations and possibility present them at wildlife conferences this Spring.
Even in the normally sterile domain of science and its ubiquitous charts and numbers, the site of a particularly big-eyed newborn seemed to melt the stoic reserve of the budding researchers.
“Oh look at the tiny one there,” Torres squealed before returning to the business of counting.