With Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco closed by the federal shutdown, a colony of elephant seals staked a claim to a beach and parking lot, The Press Democrat reported.
The enormous marine mammals, which can weigh up to 4,500 pounds, began having pups on Drakes Beach as well as the parking lot and visitor center ramps, forcing their closure, National Park Service rangers say.
Now rangers are going with the flow, opening the beach to limited public viewing on weekends.
“This is a great opportunity for folks to see ‘em up close,” said ranger Carlo Arreglo, KPIX reported. “We want to take advantage of that, but also keep the seals the pups safe.”
The beach colony now consists of 53 cows, 10 males and 52 pups, according to the station.
Elephant seals returned to the Point Reyes Headlands in the 1970s after a 150-year absence as hunting depleted their numbers, mostly on Chimney Rock beach, The Press Democrat reported.
A few seals would try to land on Drakes Beach each year but naturalists shook tarps to shoo them off for safety reasons, according to the publication. With a skeleton staff on hand during the 35-day federal shutdown, the seals moved in and took over.
Naturalists and rangers opened the beach to supervised up-close public viewing in limited numbers on Saturday and Sunday, according to the Point Reyes National Seashore site.
The beach and visitor center remain closed to the public Monday through Friday, according to the site.
Rangers plan to continue opening the beach to public viewing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends through the end of the pupping season in early April, depending on how things go, The Press Democrat reported.
“We’ll have a really strong plan in place, but a part of that plan is to be flexible just in terms of what the animals decide to do,” said Point Reyes Superintendent Cicely Muldoon, according to the publication. “Nature bats last.”
Northern elephant seals, named not for their size but for their trunk-like snouts, can grow up to 13 feet long for males and 10 feet long for females, according to the Marine Mammal Center. They are the second-largest seals in the world after southern elephant seals.
They inhabit the North Pacific, ranging from Baja California to the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands, according to the center. They feed on bottom-dwelling fish and squids.
Male elephant seals often battle for dominance on breeding beaches, roaring and slamming into each other, KPIX reported.
“It’s so primal,” said visitor Mary Thompson, according to the station. “I mean, you see these amazing, huge beasts, you know, kind of slapping into each other and you can’t believe it’s like, I don’t know, 40 feet away or something. It’s incredible.”