Featured Image Credit: Mike Baird via Wikimedia
By Emily Persico
The past forty years have been tough ones for elephant seals. After being hunted to near extinction pre-1970s, elephant seals finally gained legal protection just to be battered by El Niño storms right as their population was rebounding. Elephant seals and their habitat have taken a serious beating, and many on the South Farallon Islands have began to abandon their longtime home to join a more serenely-located colony up north.
The destruction began in 1983, when El Niño sent waves crashing over 12 feet onto the shores of the Islands. “It’s a common thing that happens and helps regulate the population,” says biologist Ryan Berger. The El Niño event in 1983 was a strong one, though. As Berger explains, “Normally you would see a population crash and then a rebound. But these storm events are also leading to habitat degradation, which is causing some of these animals to migrate to other colonies.”
As numbers at South Farallon Islands continue to decline, biologists have been taking a closer look at the population off of California’s shore, and what they have found is encouraging. Tagged elephant seals seem to be moving to Point Reyes National Seashore, where the number of elephant seals has grown from 1,759 to 1,966 since last year.
Lying slightly northwest of San Francisco, Point Reyes is an easy swim from the storm-beaten South Farallon Islands. Point Reyes has been a quiet oasis for colonies of elephant seals for a long time now, at sites including Chimney Rock, South Beach and the Point Reyes Headlands.
This time of year, elephant seals have come ashore to mate and care for their newborn pups. Their numbers on Point Reyes will peak in January and February, and then parents and pups alike will return to their lives in the ocean.
There are approximately 160,000 elephant seals living in the Pacific Ocean today. A lot has changed in 2016, but elephant seals have pushed through El Niño and adapted to hardship. Adam Ratner, marine biologist and educational specialist, tells journalists, “It’s been a pretty dramatic year.”
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