The year before, the seal mom migrated to the beach at the Headlands, which, unlike Drakes, directly faces the open ocean and more turbulent waters. While weaning her previous pup, she was careful to keep him away from the dangerous ocean’s edge, but the crowded beach was small. When an extreme storm hit in the middle of winter, the combination of small beach, high tide, and tumultuous open water spelled disaster. Unable to help, the seal mom watched as her pup was swallowed by an oncoming wave and swept out to sea, still too young to swim.
These extreme weather events at Point Reyes have become more common as a result of climate change, and their frequency will continue to increase.
In recent years, more northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) are giving birth and weaning pups at Drakes Beach, where calmer waters make the chance of pup mortality from storms much lower. Extreme storms will still be increasingly common, but the impacts of them will be felt much less harshly on beaches sheltered in bays like Drakes compared to beaches facing the ocean.
National Park Service biologists have been monitoring the seals’ population numbers and locations since the colony first appeared in the 1980s. In 2015, the breeding colonies at the Headlands and Drakes were comparable, with nearly 300 adult seals each. Just three years later, park scientists recorded record numbers at Drakes, while the colony size crashed at the Headlands (see Figure 1). There could be many contributing factors to this shift, but they include the pressures of climate change making the Headlands beaches no longer an ideal habitat.