About 240 students from Eldorado Middle School in Concord visited Alameda Point to make observations of the harbor seals on March 22. The school participates in an educational program sponsored by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito called Ocean Ambassadors.
The students arrived in two groups. While the first group was at the trailside viewing site, a second group was on a ferry ride around San Francisco Bay to view marine wildlife. The second group arrived in the afternoon, while the first group went on the ferry excursion.
Alameda Point was chosen for viewing harbor seals because it is the only place on the Bay that is easily accessible for viewing seals.
This is the second time that students from Eldorado Middle School have visited Alameda Point to view the seals. They last visited in 2019, but were unable to make the bus trip in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID restrictions. “For the last two years we did the program virtually,” said Ian Maslen, the science teacher leading the first group.
As the students assembled along the shoreline, Maslen, speaking through a bullhorn, introduced me as a representative of the harbor seal monitors who was available to answer any questions.
Maslen then asked the students, “If you were a seal, where would you like to rest – on that floating platform or on the beach?” One student raised his hand and said, “The beach.”
Maslen responded, “But what about people and predators?” “Oh, OK, the float,” said the student.
Students then began a timed exercise with a partner, writing observations in a notebook. After five minutes, the partner was handed the notebook and began adding their own observations. There were six or seven seals on the float and three swimming nearby.
More than seals were observed. When the exercise was over and the students started heading back to the bus at the Encinal Boat Ramp parking lot, a mother of a student in a wheelchair inquired, “My son wants to know what those black birds are on the float.” “Those are cormorants,” I replied, spelling out the unfamiliar name as she wrote it in his notebook.
The Ocean Ambassadors program is exclusively for students in 6th through 8th grade. “Teachers gain access through an online portal to lesson plans, teaching tools and videos to help them provide their students with an interactive learning experience,” states the Marine Mammal Center website. “Reaching middle school students at a formative time in their lives, Ocean Ambassadors provides an opportunity for students to discover and explore real-world connections to their classroom studies, and design and execute projects that address their environmental passions.”
Groups of both children and adults are frequently led down the trail to the harbor seal viewing site by naturalists from the Crab Cove Visitor Center. On December 11, 2021, naturalist Michael Charnofsky led a group of about 30 adults on a “Saturday Stroll” along the Bay Trail starting at the beach. One of the stopping points was to view the harbor seals on the float.
The shoreline viewing site on the San Francisco Bay Trail is easily accessible by car, bicycle, or on foot throughout the day. There is plenty of parking at the Encinal Boat Ramp parking lot or along West Hornet Avenue. There are also weekday bus and ferry options during commute hours.
The harbor seal float at Alameda Point was built by the Water Emergency Transportation Authority and deployed in 2016. It is currently the only known specially built floating platform for harbor seals in the world.
The float is anchored 300 feet from the shoreline because harbor seals, unlike sea lions, are very timid. Human activity too close to resting harbor seals can be perceived as a threat causing them to scramble into the water. Kayak paddles swinging in the air almost always look like trouble coming to the harbor seals and has been the most frequent cause of mass bailouts into the water. Signage at the beach informs kayakers, canoers, and paddle boarders to stay clear of the float.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the deliberate disturbance of resting harbor seals.
For more background info and to show support for the seals, visit the Alameda Point Harbor Seal Monitors Facebook page.
Originally published in the Alameda Post and the Alameda Sun.