f it happens to be your first time taking a stroll on the Alameda Point Shoreline trail, the harbor seals lounging on the floating dock just offshore may not catch your eye if not for the man squinting out at them through the camera: Mark Klein, harbor seal monitor. Through the long lens of his Canon, one can get a closer look at the pinnipeds lounging on their new float, golden winter sunlight reflecting off the water and making their skin shimmer. The majority of the seals lie inert, taking advantage of the dry day to sun themselves, but there are also the fidgeters. These ones just can’t seem to lie still, jockeying for position among their compatriots who lazily lift their flippers to attempt to accommodate them and make more room on the floating platform, which appears to be near max capacity. Klein snaps photos, trying to make sure he gets shots which capture them all, so that he can count them on the computer later for his daily seal count.
“I’m out here every day,” says Klein, squinting through the viewfinder of his camera. “We counted about 70 in the first week of January, another record haul-out.”
Seals ‘haul out’ to rest and get warm after spending time in cold Bay water, especially during molting season. And up until last summer, an old dilapidated half sunken pier in the shadow of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Hornet was where the harbor seals would rest, laying their mottled brown and gray bodies down on the semi-submerged wooden planks of the pier. Fremont is the only other haul-out location for harbor seals in the East Bay besides Alameda Point, and the seals have gathered quite a fan club over the years. But in 2014, the City of Alameda’s Water Emergency Transportation Authority announced plans to build a new ferry maintenance and operations center on the harbor seal’s pier, with no mention of what would happen to the seals. So seal watchers and members of the Golden Gate Audubon Society petitioned the City Council to require WETA to build a replacement haul-out site for the seals. A petition drive organized by Alameda residents Allison Martin and Richard Bangert garnered almost 3,000 signatures. “People who live in Alameda are pretty passionate about their wildlife,” says Cindy Margulis, executive director of GGAS.
The council responded by requiring WETA to allocate the funds for construction of a new harbor seal haul-out site. At GGAS’s suggestion, WETA hired Moss Landing Marine Laboratories biologist Jim Harvey to design the floating dock. Harvey, who has done extensive research on harbor seal populations around the Bay Area, determined that the 500 square foot float would first need to be placed next to the seal’s pier before its destruction to get the pinnipeds used to it. When the concrete and styrofoam structure was placed near their pier in June 2016, the seals didn’t seem to pay much attention to it. But soon after the old pier was removed in July, the newly formed volunteer group Alameda Point Harbor Seal Monitors began to spy seals hauling out on their new dock.
Among other things,“We took a couple pieces of lumber from the old dock and put them on the new one,” Margulis says, so that the familiar smell of the timber would attract them. It worked. Directed by Harvey, the float was moved four different times, farther and farther away from WETA’s construction site, with the seals close in tow. Finally, Harvey settled on a spot 900 feet from the old pier, where, he says “it would be relatively close to shore where people could see them but far enough so that they would feel comfortable away from the construction.”
Harbor seals are easily spooked by humans. “A float like this is perfect for them,” Harvey says, “because they can go in all different directions to get in the water” when they encounter stressors such as boats or loud noises. The float has a ramp on its side for easy seal access.
It is unlikely, Klein says, that any harbor seals will be born on the float. “We’ve seen mothers nursing pups occasionally,” he says, “but it’s too close to people and they’re too skittish for birthing here. They’ll go to more remote places for that.”
Nevertheless, the location is a crucial place for the seals to haul out so they can survive in the East Bay, and they are thriving. “When we first saw this, we didn’t think more than 40 could fit on there,” Klein says. Now, with a new record count of 70 this winter, the spot seems to be gaining popularity with the seals by the month.
The ferry maintenance and operations center will be completed in 2018, and GGAS and the harbor seal monitors will watch to see how the increased traffic of ships in the area affects the seals. For more information, check out the Alameda Point Harbor Seal Monitors on Facebook.
James Jordan is a Bay Nature editorial intern.