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At beach overrun by elephant seals, visitors get an, ahem, intimate view of the giant mammals

At beach overrun by elephant seals, visitors get an, ahem, intimate view of the giant mammals
A large bull elephant seal mates with a female in the parking lot next to Drakes Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. (Point Reyes National Seashore)

A colony of elephant seals that took over a beach at Point Reyes National Seashore while the federal government was shut down is not giving up its new digs.

The giant mammals are getting comfortable.

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Really comfortable.

More than 1,000 visitors to Drakes Beach on Saturday not only got to see about 45 nursing pups and another 45 or so females lounging on the shoreline, they also got an up close and personal view of a large bull elephant seal mating with a female in the parking lot.

“They came up to the parking lot to procreate,” said park spokesman John Dell’Osso. “So that was lovely.”

Male elephant seals can weigh 4,000 to 6,000 pounds and can range from 12 to 18 feet in length, he said. Females are smaller, around 10 feet, and weigh about 1,500 pounds.

“You could barely see the female,” Dell’Osso said of the mating pair.

There are about 2,000 elephant seals around the park along the coast north of San Francisco. Usually the pinnipeds stay off the popular beach, known for its views of the nearby white sandstone cliffs. But a winter storm coupled with king tides flooded the shore and the parking lot above the beach, and the seals moved in.

Visitors on Friday photograph a colony of elephant seals and their pups that have taken over Drakes Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Visitors on Friday photograph a colony of elephant seals and their pups that have taken over Drakes Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

The giant mammals made their way onto shore and into the parking lot, knocking over a fence and some picnic tables in the process. Had workers not been furloughed, they would have shaken tarps at the seals in an effort to shoo the animals farther up the beach where they normally lounge, Dell’Osso said.

Instead, park staff is letting them stay put. The seals have since abandoned all but a sliver of the parking lot and claimed the beach as their own. The pups will be nursing until late March or early April, keeping the shoreline of Drakes Beach closed.

“We are not going to interfere with that process whatsoever,” he said.

The seal occupation gives park visitors a rare opportunity to observe the animals at eye-level from just 40 yards away. Usually visitors can see them from only about a quarter-mile away from a bluff 100 feet above the beach, Dell’Osso said.

About 1,300 visitors took part in guided tours Saturday led by park staff and volunteers.

“People were incredibly appreciative to see these animals as close as you can see them,” Dell’Osso said.

Other parks haven’t had such a positive outpouring since the government shutdown.

In Death Valley, human feces and hunks of what rangers called “toilet paper flowers” were left scattered around the desert. And at Joshua Tree, officials found about 24 miles of unauthorized new trails carved into the desert landscape by off-road vehicles.

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