A molting elephant seal on Gonzales Beach offered lessons in nature and an occasion for friendship.
FOR OAK BAY RESIDENTS Kerri Ward, Gina Lemieux and Stephanie Weinstein, April 2018 was an exhausting month that changed their lives. A female elephant seal arrived on Gonzales Bay beach to complete its annual spring molt. The three met on the beach, while trying to protect the seal. “I don’t think it was an accident,” Ward tells me, of the three women’s introduction to one another.
I meet them in Ward’s kitchen, her character house surrounded by red-winged blackbirds, Garry oaks and early spring buds. “I think it was a kindred connection.” But despite their new friendship, the seal’s arrival is not an event they’re eager to repeat.
Left to right: Stephanie Weinstein, Kerri Ward, Gina Lemieux
Lemieux and Weinstein are biologists; Ward’s background is in conservation, but she now works as a museum curator and as a long- time volunteer for Wild Animal Rescue Centre (Wild ARC). Ward discovered the seal; Lemieux and Weinstein encountered her trying to erect a caution-tape barrier around the animal. A friendship blossomed from their shared love of the natural world. “We are part of nature, not separate from it,” explains Lemieux. “It was amazing to see this seal go through this phenomenal life process.”
Ward’s ribbon barrier was a reaction to the frenzy that surrounded the seal’s arrival, which had quickly attracted attention from local residents and media. Even tour buses announced its presence during their travels through Oak Bay. Thanks to the media attention, crowds began visiting the beach, pressing closer and closer to the wild animal. “The behaviour of people was depressing and discouraging,” Ward says. “We’re invading their habitat!” And yet, she says, she encountered many people whose conception of nature was something closer to Disney—where wild animals can be approached for selfie shots or close inspection.
Elephant seals go through a “catastrophic molt” every year, during which they lose their fur and their topmost layer of skin. It’s a painful and taxing process. Normally, they don’t eat during their month-long molt, and often lose 25 percent of their body weight. Males normally top out at 4,500 pounds, with a length of 13 feet; females can reach 3,000 pounds. During their molt, they loll on the beach or dip into the water, using the salt and sand to keep cool and relieve pain. Their bodies conserve water during these periods, concentrating their urine so that they excrete less and can go long periods without drinking.
In the initial days after the seal’s arrival, Ward, Lemieux and Weinstein quickly formed a team, taking at least three shifts a day to ensure a barrier remained around the seal and helping educate the public. “For the most part, people were respectful,” says Lemieux, and Weinstein agrees, but those that weren’t led to a couple of frightening incidents for the women.
The media attention culminated in a confrontation with the public on the sand beside the seal. “I could see the seal, and they were surrounding it, and it was stressed,” Ward recounts. Afraid a confrontation might occur between seal and human (or dog), Ward raced across the beach to ask people to step back. “People started swearing at me, they threw driftwood, they screamed. One guy stood up for me and they turned on him. It was sheer insanity.”
Ward contacted Fisheries and Oceans to let them know what happened. The next day, there was a massive response by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Marine Mammal Rescue (an initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium), and local Bylaw enforcement. Pylons and signs were erected. Enforcement officers patrolled.
The northern elephant seal’s range stretches from northern Alaska south to Mexico. Many molt at Race Rocks, off Metchosin. Mostly a solitary creature, they migrate as far south as Mexico, congregating to breed and feed. Once hunted for their blubber (like whales), they were nearly extinct by 1882. Less than 100 individuals found refuge on small Guadalupe Island, off the Baja Peninsula, where they were discovered in 1910. The island became a biological reserve in the 1920s, and since then the population has grown to more than 200,000 individuals, all descended from the Guadalupe population. This recovery from near-extinction makes the seals even more precious in Ward’s eyes. “They were here long before us. It’s not fair that we stress them out.”
All three women credit the natural world as a guiding force in their lives. Lemieux has worked extensively in Southeast Asia in marine biology and education. After a masters in tropical conservation and development, Weinstein began working in environmental education, and now provides schools all through the CRD with techniques to connect kids to nature. Ward has transported seals, squirrels and countless birds in her car, through her work with Wild ARC. “This is the best place in the world,” they tell me, of BC’s South Coast. They are spider rescuers, snake and jellyfish befrienders, entranced with all that gallops, shimmies and glides.
Weinstein and Lemieux qualify that Ward’s bad experience on the beach doesn’t represent the majority of their encounters with the public. Most were far less confrontational, though still lacking knowledge. “They thought the seal was sick or dead, so they went closer and were curious,” Weinstein explains. So she decided to set up an education table. She brought seal skulls, colouring books and information about the seals, gained from her work with the Habitat Trust Education Program and Wild BC. “One of the most positive experiences was talking to a bunch of teenagers, who all had their drinks,” she laughs. One interested girl kept asking questions, and then excitedly took the information back to her friends. It only served to confirm her optimism: how interested children can become in the natural world, and how much their behaviour can influence others.
Unlike the Pacific harbour seal and California sea lion, who often get blamed (inaccurately) by fishers for eating salmon, elephant seals feed primarily on squid. Diving down as deep as two kilometres, they can hold their breath for up to two hours while in search of squid, as well as small amounts of fish and crustaceans. The inflatable snout of the male elephant seal amplifies his snorts, bellows and grunts, which help to ward off rival males. The females have no proboscis.
After the seal left, the women breathed a sigh of relief. But it didn’t last long. A second seal arrived in May, staying for only a day. Another was seen in Gorge Inlet on May 30. And a third arrived at Gonzales Bay in June, staying for two weeks. The women’s daily patrols resumed. They were asked if media should be informed. “No!” they shouted. The seal left the Friday of the Canada Day long weekend. Weinstein smiles, “It was perfect timing!”
Lemieux, Weinstein and Ward don’t know why the seals chose Gonzales Bay to molt. Are they confused about their location? Is the changing climate altering their habits? Or is this just the result of a rebounding population that now needs more beaches on which to molt? They relate the story of California’s Drakes Beach, which was taken over by elephant seals during the recent US federal government shutdown. A lack of park rangers meant the seals easily colonized the beach, mating and rearing their pups in what is normally a busy destination for humans. The park stayed closed until the seals and their young departed.
Lemieux, despite the stress of monitoring and facing off with the public, looks at the seal’s arrival as a gift. “That’s been the silver lining, to connect with these two amazing women who I never otherwise would have met,” she says. “I’ve connected with local neighbours, seen beautiful spirits and hearts who have the same outlook on what we’re trying to do.” But that’s not to say they wish for another arrival on Gonzales, or any populated beach in the Capital Region.
If an elephant seal does arrive, their advice echoes that of Fisheries and Oceans and conservation organizations: stay clear, keep your dog and children away, and let the seal endure its natural process without disturbance, and particularly, without having to appear in a selfie.
Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast. She is currently completing a PhD in Human Geography, focusing on the intersections between the social sciences and poetry.