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Why Did the Elephant Seal Cross the Road?


A persistent 900-pound pregnant elephant seal gets a second chance for herself and her future pup after repeated attempts to cross a highway required rescuers to get creative in moving her to a safer location.

December 29, 2015

Tolay hauls up along Highway 37 in Sonoma County. Photo © California Highway Patrol

The Marine Mammal Center received the first call early in the afternoon on Monday, December 28, about a seal in the middle of a highway in Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco. The seal appeared to be making an attempt to climb over the dividing wall, prompting multiple calls from passing motorists to the Center and California Highway Patrol, and causing a massive traffic back-up on the two-lane highway.

As traffic piled up, trained rescuers from The Marine Mammal Center arrived on the scene to coax the determined pinniped back into the bay. When they arrived, they found that the small seal that had been reported was in reality a nearly 1,000 pound adult elephant seal, making a simple rescue mission impossible.

Marine mammal experts from the Center knew that at this time of year the elephant seal should be at a nearby rookery for mating and birthing. It was critical not just to move her away from the highway, a potential danger to both herself and passing motorists, but to get her back towards the open ocean where she belongs.

The Center’s rescue team was able to get her back into the waters of nearby Tolay Creek, but instead of swimming towards the bay, the persistent seal kept hauling out and moving toward the highway. The ordeal continued throughout the day on Monday, and as darkness fell rescuers and the California Highway Patrol continued to monitor her to ensure she did not move into traffic overnight.

The scene along Highway 37 as kayakers attempt to coax Tolay out into the bay. Photo © The Marine Mammal Center

Before daybreak on Tuesday, two of the Center's rescuers set out in a kayak in an attempt to guide the animal away from the muddy shore and to open waters. Rescue and Response team members Barbie Halaska and Dave Zahniser paddled along in the kayak, using airhorns and other diversion methods to try to convince the wayward elephant seal to head out of the creek, but to no avail.

By this time the story had attracted national and international media attention, with reporters descending on the scene from all over the world. The story was picked up by news outlets as far flung as Boston, Philadelphia, London and Singapore. Named “Tolay” after the creek where she was rescued, people around the globe rooted for Tolay's safe return to her ocean home.

But a different strategy was clearly needed to get this seal to safety, so the Center's Director of Veterinary Science, Dr. Shawn Johnson, used a pole-mounted tranquilizer to sedate the elephant seal. This was done in order to reduce the stress on the animal brought about by the handling and transport. She was then examined by veterinarians, who took blood samples and used an ultrasound machine to confirm that the adult female seal was pregnant.

With help from the nearby Six Flags Marine Park, the 900lb animal was placed on a large tarp and loaded onto a truck. It took 12 people to lift the sedated animal, a truly herculean effort. She was then transported to Point Reyes National Seashore, where she was released in a safe location near the elephant seal rookery. An ID tag was attached to her flipper, so researchers will be able to identify her should she ever find herself in trouble again. Upon her release, she went off the truck smoothly, got her bearings, and slowly moved towards the other seals in the rookery.


Watch a slideshow about the two-day effort to rescue Tolay:

Watch a video of Tolay and her persistent efforts to come ashore:


Tolay Settles in to Point Reyes
The morning after her rescue and relocation, Tolay was spotted by Sarah Codde, Biological Science Technician with the Pinniped Monitoring Program at Point Reyes National Seashore. Sarah reported that Tolay was "...leaving the Fish Dock area. ... a few hours later she had hauled out at the Drakes Beach colony. This is a much better location for her than the Fish Dock, as this location is one of our main breeding colonies."

Tolay in the area of the Fish Dock. NPS Photo/Sarah Codde NMFS Permit No. 17152-00

Tolay at Drakes Beach. NPS Photo/Sarah Codde NMFS Permit No. 17152-00


Tolay is Now a Mama
On the morning of January 2nd, 2016, the National Park Service confirmed that Tolay gave birth to her pup. Winter wildlife docents with the Point Reyes National Seashore observed the pup and reported that Tolay “appeared happy and healthy.” The newborn pup, known as a "blackcoat," will have a thick dark coat of fur for 28 days before it molts off.

Here are a few photos of Tolay and her new pup,
provided by Winter Wildlife Docent Jim Rolka:

Tolay is a proud mama. Photo © Jim Rolka, Point Reyes National Seashore

Tolay nurses her newborn pup. Photo © Jim Rolka, Point Reyes National Seashore

Tolay teaches her pup to communicate. Photo © Jim Rolka, Point Reyes National Seashore

Want to Name Tolay's Pup?
Visit The Marine Mammal Center’s Facebook page for a “just for fun” naming contest and more conversation about Tolay and her pup. Names cannot be used in any official context since Tolay and her pup are wild animals.

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