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The return of the pinnipeds.

FOR CONSERVATIONISTS, the West Coast's pinniped recovery is one of the biggest -- and least talked about -- success stories of the past 20 years. For fishermen and harbor masters, it's a mixed blessing." That's how Dr. Steven Webster of the Monterey Bay Aquarium sums up the West Coast's pinniped recovery. While much has been made of the heartening recovery of some whale species, an equally astonishing comeback can be seen in some of the whale's furry marine mammal cousins -- seals, sea lions, and walruses.

Nearly 20 years after passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we're seeing pinnipeds in record populations and unusual situations -- elephant seals blanketing rookeries from the Farallons to the Channel Islands in numbers our great-grandparents couldn't have seen. At San Francisco's Pier 39, 400 California sea lions are taking over boat docks and becoming a tourist attraction. In Carpinteria, California, in sight of housing tracts, shy harbor seals are claiming a state park beach (volunteers protect them from harassment).

Conversely, some fishermen say pinniped populations are out of control, and they often watch sea lions devour fish out of nets or pick off migrating steelhead at fish ladders.

While populations of some pinnipeds are thriving, scientists are racing to study and save other species, and making surprising and disturbing finds along the way. What they've learned: elephant seals can dive deeper than most submarines; sea lions may have a kind of vocal communication; ocean pollution is suspected in new, mysterious diseases showing up in a few seals.

Some of the world's best viewing opportunities are on the West Coast. Five species are common year-round; in winter all but the walrus spend time ashore where you can see them (three more, northern fur, Guadalupe, and monk seals, are rarely seen on land). On pages 108 and 109, we list characteristics and top viewing areas.

Watching pinnipeds is more fun when you know some key behaviors. We tell what scientists have learned, where to go, how to join the rescue effort. They're federally protected -- illegal to hunt or harass; don't approach closer than 100 yards.

From the brink of


Of the eight species shown, three have seen dramatic turnarounds.

The Guadalupe fur seal is returning from near extinction -- only 14 remained in 1954. In the late 1970s, when large numbers of northern elephant seals came bellowing back to the California mainland at Ano Nuevo in San Mateo County, those seals drew major crowds and eventually got their own preserve. Their populations have nearly doubled in each of the last five years, and now the seals are being sighted at a new mainland rookery. The third species, the California sea lion, is the most visible of the big five and the most vocal; in Monterey, guest at some bayside hotels complain about the barking from a nearby colony.

The future of two species remains clouded. Although its numbers are higher now, the Guadalupe fur seal is still at risk; a major oil spill could seriously threaten its existence. The Hawaiian monk seal, estimated to number around 1,500, may be coming close to extinction.

What to watch for

Take time to watch them closely and you'll be charmed by their playful behavior and pleading, dog-like eyes. A good pair of binoculars and a field guide help. Check tide tables: in general, animals will be out feeding during the highest tides (when their haul-out sites are submerged) and resting between tides and between diving periods. Watch for individual traits and you'll capture better photographs.

First, the basics. How can you tell a harbor seal from a sea lion when you see just a head above water? Check first for external ears (sea lions have tiny ear flaps; seals don't). "Seals sink, sea lions dive" often holds true as they head back underwater. Except for harbor and monk seals, males are a third larger than females. Drawings on pages 108 and 109 highlight more features.

Next, check the flippers. These animals are called pinniped from the Latin word meaning "feather footed" because of their fan-shaped flippers, which they use mainly to propel themselves through the water at up to 35 mph. Elephant seals use their front flippers to throw cooling sand over themselves when the day heats up. Harbor seals use the long claws on their flexible foreflippers to groom.

Watch how they move. When sea lions are in the water, you may see groups of them "rafting" -- holding their flippers straight up in the air. It's a way of cooling off or warming up, letting air or sun reach the network of tiny veins in the flippers and warm or cool the blood. Unlike humans, they can't sweat, yet this way they're able to maintain a body core temperature cloe to ours under their furry skin and layer of fat.

In the water, pinnipeds are agile swimmers, but slower than whales or porpoises. They can also doze off at sea; elephant seals have been recorded at tremendous depths in a kind of torpor. You'll often see harbor seals "bottler"--asleep bolt upbright in the water with just their noses poking above the surface.

Watch how they act. Pinnipeds are sociable animals that hang out in groups. All but the harbor seal set up harems or territory, with the fiercest males building the largest. Some perform elaborate courtship displays, which you may see at this time of year. Harbor seals flip and slap the water with their fins. Elephant seals bellow, chase, and attack rival males in beach battles that sometimes leave their thick chest shields bloodied. Battles may end in serious injury.


troubled waters

Dr. Burney LeBoeuf of UC Santa Cruz, who has studied elephant seals since 1968, says, "We're making great progress scientifically. The real breakthrough technologically was with the microcomputers you could actually attach to the animals--we've learned elephant seals are the depth record holders, diving to 1,500 meters (probably deeper than sperm whales), and at sea spend 90 percent of their time underwater--more than most whales."

And what's ahead? He says, "We're going to see lots of new developments with studies in genetics and molecular biology. From the studies, we may understand how small the population can shrink before it loses the genetic diversity needed to maintain adaptability and to survive."

In 1988, Europe lost thousands of seals as a distemper virus swept the seas; some scientists claimed ocean pollution had suppressed the seals' immune systems.

Can it happen here? Peigin Barrett, director of The Marine Mammal Center in Marin County, California, says, "We're already seeing some very rare autoimmune diseases. Immune suppression may be tied to the effects of pollutants and toxins."

In Alaska, Steller sea lion populations are crashing, and it was just added to the federal threatened species list. According to John Twiss, executive director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, "It may be due to a whole range of problems from climatic changes to an enormous pollock fishery--we just don't know."

Fisheries conflicts are on the rise. Sea lions take significant amounts of netted or hooked salmon and damage fishing gear. In addition, thousands of marine mammals die in deep-sea drift nets, which stretch for miles.

Hope is also on the horizon. When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was reauthorized in 1988, amendments added a five-year study of the marine mammal-fishery conflicts (which is now in progress), studies of injured animal recovery programs for domestic fishing fleets, and a fishing industry education program.

Where to see them

Our map on page 109 shows top viewing spots. Here are others. The last three are park and zoo programs.

Northern California. In San Francisco, visit Seal Rocks at the Cliff House (national park naturalists are on hand) and Pier 39 (free seal talks noon to 4 weekends). June through November, Oceanic Society Expeditions boat trips ($58) view elephant seals, sea lions, fur seals on the Farallon Islands; (415) 474-3385. At Point Reyes National Seashore, elephant seals are establishing a second mainland rookery below Seal Lion Overlook. Sonoma Coast State Beach at Goat Rock has harbor seal haul-out.

Southern California. Try Montana de Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo; Point Sal State Beach near Santa Maria; offshore harbor seal haul-out at Gaviota State Park; major rookery by Carpinteria State Beach.

Oregon. At private Sea Lion Caves, 12 miles north of Florence, see up to 200 California and Steller sea lions. Open 9 to dusk daily; $5, $3 ages 6 through 17. Also try Yaquina Head Lighthouse BLM Natural Area.

Washington. In Olympic National Park, you may find harbor seals, and Steller and California sea lions near Beach 4, Rialto Beach, Sand Point.

Marine World Africa USA, State 37 (Marine World Parkway) at I-80, Vallejo; (707) 644-4000. November 1 through March 29, hear free "trainer talks," watch training sessions with sea lions or seal feeding. Winter hours are 9:30 to 5 Wednesdays through Sundays (daily December 18 through January 5; closed December 25); $19.95, $14.95 ages 4 through 12.

Sea World, 1720 S. Shores Road, San Diego; (619) 222-6363. Daily sea lion shows, behind-the scenes tour to view seal rehabilitation. Open 9 to 6 daily; $23, $17 ages 3 through 11.

Point Defiance Zoo, 5400 N. Pearl Street, Tacoma; (206) 591-5335. Two walruses rescued as pups and raised by volunteers swim past view windows. To volunteer for keeper-aid program, call 591-5337. Open 10 to 4 daily; $5.75, $4 ages 5 through 17.
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Title Annotation:seal, sea lion, and walrus populations; includes information on viewing opportunities and volunteer protection organizations
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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