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Coastal Impact

It’s not unusual for the beach I walk nearly every day to be rather empty. This little piece of paradise that extends from Cambria up to Pico Creek Beach in San Simeon offers plenty of peace and quiet. But during those first few weeks of pandemic lockdown, you could sense that things were different. No one was fishing off the jagged rocks that extend out into the Pacific, no one passed me on the trail that winds along the bluff overlooking the water. And the parking lots were empty at every motel lining Highway 1.


According to Visit California, the nonprofit organization promoting travel to the state, total visits to California were down 50.8 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. We felt this drastic drop immediately on our Central Coast.

Pacific harbor seal Meringue recovers at The Marine Mammal Center. Credit Bill Hunnewell ©The Marine Mammal Center

Then a shift began to happen rapidly. While people may have not been traveling to the state, current residents did begin moving around the area, restless after the initial months of staying at home. With wildfires raging in a lot of our forested state and national parks, many headed to the beach.


I’ll admit that I’ve only lived here a handful of years, but as the Memorial Day holiday hit in 2020 and the summer carried on towards Labor Day, I’d never seen the beaches in San Simeon so full. Reds, greens and blues dotted the neutral sandy beach as one tent-covered picnic setup after the next hosted small families who needed to get out of the house and felt safest outdoors.

From left to right: Harbor Seals in San Simeon. California Sea Lions; Coastal trails in San Luis Obispo county.

I had given little thought to the impact of these trends until I saw AppleTV+’s The Year Earth Changed. In a heartwarming perspective, it reported that during 2020 endangered penguins broke their breeding records, successful nesting of sea turtles rose and reduced noise pollution enhanced marine mammal communication. The documentary showed how we, people, impacted the world both before and during the pandemic.


When we collectively stayed home, traffic noise on land decreased by as much as 70 percent. On the water, the 17 percent decrease in global shipping traffic dropped. 17 percent of cruise ship traffic stopped. In turn, underwater was 25 percent quieter, affording marine animals a more peaceful environment.


This global influence sparked my curiosity about effects closer to home, along California’s 840 miles of coastline. Did any of our marine life enjoy the positive impacts seen in other parts of the world?


California’s Marine Mammal Center is the world’s largest marine mammal hospital. Since 1975, the center has rescued more than 24,000 marine mammals from their 600 miles of authorized rescue areas on California’s coast and the Big Island of Hawai’i. California sea lions, northern elephant seals, Pacific harbor seals and southern sea otters are some of the animals they encounter regularly through their work.


Aliah Meza is the San Luis Obispo Operations Manager of the center’s Morro Bay outpost, responsible for triage and stabilization. Mammals rescued in this area are taken there first, where they stay from a few days to a week, and then are transported to the hospital in Sausalito where they receive any needed care. When ready, they are released back into the wild.

Southern Sea Otters in Morro Bay.

In 2020, as a result of fewer people on the beaches, greater opportunities for seal sitting appeared — yes, it’s a thing — and a quieter environment for it. Seal sitting is when young elephant seals take break onshore soon after they have been weaned and are learning to swim and fish on their own.


“Seal sitting versus removal allows them that rest time,” says Aliah. The animals are left undisturbed and can return to the water when they are ready.


When seals are resting, though, onlookers often phone the center to report sick, beached animals they can’t tell or don’t know if they are recuperating, a normal behavior. And sometimes, an animal beaches itself in a not-so-peaceful spot and needs to be moved.


The Marine Mammal Center responds to such calls by sending out a team member to determine whether the mammal needs relocating to a more ideal bit of shoreline or rescuing for further care.


“Often, removal of the animal is due to so many people being around,” says Aliah. This distresses the animals and it’s best to remove them from that area. In the past year, fewer people visiting beaches during the pandemic has meant fewer distressed marine mammals and better rest for them.


Regardless of the number of humans on the beach, public education is always an important focus of the center. As Californians ramp up their trips to the coast and visitors outside the state put California back on their travel lists, it’s important to know and try to alleviate how our presence affects these animals in their homes. “The main thing is that if anyone comes across a marine mammal, keep your distance,” says Aliah. This means taking photos and videos from afar, using the zoom function.


During the pandemic, more locals than visitors made calls to the center about beached animals. “It will be interesting to see the call volume analysis in the future,” Aliah says. If you find yourself reporting a beached animal, you can provide any photos or videos you’ve taken to help the experts assess whether the mammal needs help or is just taking five … seal sitting.


Need to reach The Marine Mammal Center? Call (415) 289-SEAL. They can help, 24 hours a day.

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