What is it with harbor seals and personal space?

My first experience with public transport in Taipei started with an uncomfortable feeling. It took me a while to figure out what it was, then it dawned on me- these people had no sense of personal space, standing or walking they physically contacted each other constantly. Taiwanese culture does not maintain the same halo of personal space that Americans do. In the US people will maintain a foot or more separation unconsciously. In Asia I was surrounded by people who jammed into spaces tighter than sardines in a can. We don’t do that here.

If you look at pinniped(seals) haul outs- you see similar cultural differences. Seals and sea lions haul out in groups for safety, like flocks of birds. They hunt individually, but haul out together to sleep, rest or warm up.

California sea lions at Moss Landing. Note the neck entangled individual on the right

California sea lion haul outs look like a game of twister in an elevator, or something worse.

Harbor seals at Moss Beach, San Mateo

Harbor seals are the exact opposite, they may hang together, but maintain spatial separation from each other.

Elephant seals, Ano Neuvo, San Mateo

Elephant seals are somewhere in the middle, but still close to the harbor seal personal space rule.

Santa Cruz, near the surfing museum.

Another amazing thing about sea lions is their body structure enables them to move well on land. Here is a sea lion on a bluff thirty feet above the water at Steamer’s in Santa Cruz, ignoring the gawkers.

Chimney Rock, Pt Reyes.

I’ve seen them sixty feet up cliffs I would not dream of climbing at Chimney Rock in Pt. Reyes.

Bodega Rock, Sonoma

Harbor seals prefer sandbars or flat beaches and stay close to the water, they can’t move as well as sea lions. Sea lions prefer rocks, or docks.

Sea lions do give other species a bit of distance, this Steller's


The visitors dock at Moss Landing, Monterey

All of the pinnipeds, and I think most marine mammals, acclimate to humans pretty rapidly, a couple of generations at most. As long as we don’t shoot or run them over they figure out we are not going to hurt them. Many animals in the Galapagos and of course penguins in Antarctica are classic examples of the same ‘no harm no foul’ behavior.

East of Lovers Point, Monterey Bay

A few of the harbor seals in the water at Cannery Row will jump on kayaks or diver’s floats, and in general they ignore kayaks. Seals in Monterey give birth on the beach- at Hopkins or at Point Lobos, a scant thirty yards from onlookers. After a few generations they realize we won’t hurt them, and the presence of humans discourages predators. Monterey’s otters know the protected water surrounding boat docks inside the harbor is a safe place to nurse pups. If you want to see mother otters and pups spend time around the inner harbor, you are more likely to find them there than anywhere on the bay.

If you paddle at Drakes Estero in Pt. Reyes the seals will flee at 300 yards, but twenty miles away in Tomales Bay you will not flush them at 50 yards if you approach obliquely and with restraint.

The NPS goes to great lengths with rules and directives to keep people away from wildlife. I think those policies are counterproductive for both the parks and marine wildlife. Other entities have demonstrated that marine wildlife and people can coexist with great economic benefit to the region, and positive impacts for wildlife.

As kayaking becomes more popular I’m willing to bet that in ten years the flee triggering distance in Tomales will be down to twenty yards, if there was no hunting in the bay it would be almost indifference, like Monterey. If all people behaved properly (I am sure some kayakers and fishermen hassle them) within ten years humans would be ignored. The best way to ensure that comes to pass is education, gentle persuasion and monitoring, as Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary does at Elkhorn and Cannery Row, not with a big stick.

A female otter who spent time in rehab at the aquarium seeks out kayakers in Elkhorn. She approached this group of paddlers rafted up eating lunch. She promptly took a nap resting against the kayak.

The behavior of friendly gray whales in the Mexican lagoons is unprecedented in the animal world, it brings in needed tourism income and people who have petted whales go home loving them.

Tolerating people is smart behavior for marine mammals, for people to preserve a species they have to love them, that requires familiarity born of close inspection and interaction.

I hope the guidelines for observing marine mammals evolve to recognize the evolution in their attitudes towards us, it will help everyone in the long run. It’s important not to disturb their behavior, however some of the current rules are counter productive.


About westcoastwilds

This site is meant to share the beauty of the Pacific Ocean and educate people about mankind's stewardship obligations now that we have complete control of the planet. To date we've made a mess of it, but there is still hope.
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