100 California elephant seals conquered a National Park beach during the government shutdown, and now they're using the parking lot to mate

  • A group of roughly 100 elephant seals took advantage of the quiet on Drakes Beach during the government shutdown to knock down a fence, get cosy in the sand, and nurse their pups.
  • About 46 females, 10 males, and 45 pups are there right now.
  • The government is open again, but the sea mammals are standing their ground. On Saturday, park rangers started giving guided tours of the beach the animals have conquered. They may do it again next weekend.

While federal employees were away, the seals came out to play.

It’s hard to say exactly when it happened, but at some point during the five-week US government shutdown, a herd of elephant seals took advantage of all the quiet time on federal beaches, and became squatters on a stretch of Point Reyes National Seashore, a protected coastline near San Francisco.

Even though the government is back in business, and park rangers have returned to work, the seals aren’t budging.

It’s elephant seal child-rearing season right now, and about 46 mums are busy with important parenting duties, park ranger John Dell’Osso told Business Insider.

“Certainly no plans to move them, since the pups are nursing from their mothers,” Dell’Osso wrote in an email.

On Saturday, rangers and volunteer docents started giving weekend-only tours of the seal-occupied beach, keeping tourists at a safe distance from the seals, and making way for a seal couple who decided that the parking lot was a perfect place to get it on.

Take a look at where the sea mammals have set up shop:

The occupation started when the seals knocked down a fence. Undeterred by the usual human presence on the beach, they set up camp.

The entire Drakes Beach area is now closed to the public “to better protect the elephant seals from disturbance,” the NPS said.

December to February is breeding season for the California seals. Normally, when the government is open, they mate nearby, above Drakes Bay.

The males (called bulls) arrive in December to claim their positions on the beach, and the females come in after them.

But the government shutdown provided the perfect opportunity for the seals to expand their mating quarters. Last weekend, a pair of seals decided that the parking lot would be a better place to get down to the business of baby-making.

Courtesy of NPS Ranger John Dell’Osso

“This is a huge success story of a species which nearly became extinct,” Dell’Osso wrote. “With all of the conservation efforts over the many years, we are happy to see their success!”

While other seals mate, pregnant females, who’ve gestated for about seven months, birth just one precious pup each. They need this beach time to fatten up their babes in a hurry, and get them ready to swim.

Rangers and volunteer docents are giving guided tours of the makeshift seal nursery on weekends, walking people to the edge of the parking lot so they can get a closer look at the seals and their pups.

It’s an unusual sight: elephant seals spend most of the year at sea, migrating from California and Mexico to Alaska and the north Pacific.

They are impressive divers and swimmers, reaching depths of 300 feet deep or more, and typically staying underwater for 20-30 minutes at a time. They log up to 21,000 miles at sea every year.

There are more than 100,000 of the elephant seals off the California coast during breeding season. About 90 adults and 45 pups have made it to this particular beach, Dell’Osso said.

The seal pups have a lot of growing to do during this time. They weigh around 65 pounds when they’re first born, but they will triple their birth weight during the first month of life, as they nurse by their mother’s side. They will also “moult” (shed) their baby black fur coat and replace it with a silver one that looks more grown-up.

After about 28 days, the seal mommas will abruptly get up and leave. The baby seals are left to their own devices on the beach, to figure out how to swim and catch fish. It’s quite the weaning strategy.

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