On a Sunday afternoon, passersby on the Rec Trail in Pacific Grove pause to look through a chain-link fence toward the sea. At first glance, some don’t notice the harbor seals on the sand at Hopkins Beach, but volunteer Craig Noke is quick to encourage a boy to look through a spotting scope.
“We’re looking at one that is significantly camouflaged, to the left of the dark rocks and to the right of the white bird,” Noke says.
It takes a minute for the boy to see the large gray mass is not a rock, but a seal. Next to her is her pup, 22 hours old. This baby has no name yet – something volunteer Kim Akeman will wait until after weaning to do.
“They are like my kids,” she says.
Akeman has volunteered with Bay Net, a program of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, for eight years; her husband, retired newspaper reporter Thom Akeman, has been volunteering here for 16 years. During peak pupping season, Kim’s days will stretch from 6:30am to dusk, with a few breaks.
She’s a vet tech who spent 12 years volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program before transitioning to the less physically demanding volunteer work of monitoring harbor seals. Before SORAC, she volunteered at zoos doing wildlife rehabilitation work.
All of it made her into a wildlife photographer, she says, because she learned how to anticipate animal behavior, enabling her to get the best shot.
Her photography converged with the naming ritual in 2013 for the launch of a Facebook page called The Harbor Seals of Pacific Grove, which now has nearly 9,000 followers.
That’s when the Akemans were looking to rally local support for harbor seals. The species had virtually disappeared from the region for a century, until reappearing next to Hopkins Marine Station in 1967. Over time, the fenced cove became a rookery for hundreds of seals, and in 2006, some moms moved to a less crowded pocket beach a few blocks away to give birth. With no fence, pedestrians could easily disturb nursing seals. While city guidelines call for temporary fencing to keep people off of those beaches, in 2013, the fencing didn’t go up – and the seal mortality rate skyrocketed.
“We lost 40-plus seal pups,” Thom says. “Everyone just went ballistic. We told the city, that is not going to happen again.”
Advocates pushed the city to act, threatening to gather signatures for a ballot initiative. “You know we’re going to have the cutest campaign photos in history,” Thom recalls telling city officials at the time. Kim launched the Facebook page, posting dozens of photos and videos, showing wide-eyed baby seals nursing and learning how to swim.
City council approved an ordinance, making the guidelines into a requirement for temporary fencing to protect the moms and pups. The first orange netting of the year went up on April 1.
Six years later, the Facebook page draws comments from communities with human-seal interactions all over the globe, as far away as the Netherlands, and most recently La Jolla, inquiring about how to implement protections.
The page also includes warnings about bad human behavior. A March 24 post reads, “The unpleasant side of spring popped up today when some idiot put a ladder up against the fence of Hopkins and climbed up to get a clearer photo with his giant camera, oblivious to the fact he might have flushed them and caused moms to abandon newborn pups. Shortly after that, a drone buzzed the beach. Those are the ugly parts of spring and those selfish acts jeopardize wildlife viewing for all of us.”
Fencing or no fencing, it’s unpredictable to bad odds to be a baby seal. The first surviving pup at Hopkins this year was born to Koala on March 22 – after nine failures.
“Back when we had a standard, you could expect a 10-percent pup failure,” Thom says. “Normal ended in 2014.”
Since then, warmer ocean temperatures have led to reduced food sources.
Kim is still waiting for two of her favorite moms, M&M and Mustard, to return to the beach this year, hopefully pregnant with healthy pups.
M&M, for “Monocular Mom,” is missing an eye. “She is not the prettiest seal, she’s pretty beat up,” Kim says.
But M&M is persistent: After a storm one year washed her pup away, M&M spent two days looking for her missing baby, swimming back and forth between the beaches at Hopkins and 5th Street, checking out the babies lined up on each beach. She eventually found her pup.
In M&M’s absence, Kim is partial to Koala, a supermom who has given birth in six out of the past eight years to the first successful pup of the season. “How she does that, I don’t know,” she says. “It’s really quite amazing.”