A 900-pound elephant seal shut down Highway 37 because she could

How does an elephant seal cross the road?

As soon as I heard about her, I was in love: the 900-pound elephant seal who shut down Highway 37 in Sonoma County, northeast of San Francisco. Elephant seals have no natural predators; they pretty much do what they want. She wanted to cross the road, and she was up on the highway divider before the California Highway Patrol showed up. The seal was "very committed" to crossing, the officer on the scene, Andrew Barclay, told The San Francisco Chronicle.

Vivian Ho, a reporter at the Chronicle, was the first to call her Bathsheba (after the Biblical bathing beauty) — though rescuers were already referring to her as Tolay, after the nearby creek. I'll compromise with Bathsheba de Tolay, since if we were all named after the places we were escaping from, my name would be Iowa.

She must have gone up the San Francisco Bay to the San Pablo Bay, and from there, up Tolay Creek. But why was she there? Early on, the experts at the Marine Mammal Center had a theory: she might be pregnant. In late December, pregnant elephant seals arrive at rookeries — breeding colonies like the one at Point Reyes National Seashore — where they haul themselves ashore and give birth to their pups. It was possible she was looking for a place to haul out and give birth.

Bathsheba liked this spot, I guess. Hard to say why. There wasn't much on the other side of the road — hay field, that was all. No food, only a trickle of water. Tolay Creek went under the highway, in a viaduct, though it wasn't clear she knew that. She knew she wanted to cross, and she was accustomed to doing whatever she wanted. So she wandered into traffic, because traffic will slow for her.

How often do you get to do whatever you want? That's this seal's whole life. The occasions where she doesn't get exactly what she wants are rare. She's too big to be trifled with, and yet here we were, trifling with her.

elephant seal 1

Bathsheba, or Tolay, or Bathsheba de Tolay, is a lovely elephant seal by any name. (Elizabeth Lopatto)

She was still there the next day, on the south side of the highway. She was in the water when I arrived, around 11AM, during a second attempt by experts from Sausalito's Marine Mammal Center to shoo her back to open water. There was plenty of media there already — she'd been an overnight sensation. I had missed the first attempt to shoo her from the roadside, involving air horns — meant to irritate her or scare her, I guess. She wasn't impressed. A lot of the reporters had been there since 5AM. One of them, a reporter with a local station, wanted Bathsheba de Tolay to get it over with and get caught, because she (the reporter, not the seal) really needed to use the bathroom. There were a few perfectly good bushes down the path, away from the scrum, but she didn't seem to want to take advantage of this opportunity.

The Marine Mammal Center people — two of them, a man and a woman, both quite fit — got in a yellow kayak and began splashing her. The front paddler, Barbie Halaska, gently nudged the elephant seal's tail, eliciting fury. Bathsheba bit the boat, right on the prow. A few times, the seal got shockingly close to Halaska's legs. It soon became clear that she and her partner, Dave Zahniser, were not going to successfully chase her back to the bay. They were outmatched while she was in water.

elephant seal 2

Seal bites boat. (Elizabeth Lopatto)

High tide was around 2PM — that was when she would likely make another run for land. On land, humans have the upper hand; she could be sedated and transported more easily there. The traffic jam would continue while we stood and waited for high tide. Motorists kept slowing down to see her, shouting out their windows to ask what was going on. Not much happening by the side of the highway, really. There was some cooling vomit from what the highway patrol officer had thought was a gawker but was in fact just a carsick kid. The kid probably had scrambled eggs for breakfast, judging by the output. Thankfully, no roadkill.

Sure enough, around 2PM, Bathsheba de Tolay, the elephant seal queen of Sonoma County, began moving. She'd found the viaduct and was swimming back and forth under Highway 37. The kayak was dispatched again, to shoo her toward the north side of the highway, where it would be relatively easy to tranquilize her. For a while, she lurked under the highway, and then finally began to haul out — she had crossed the road, just like she wanted. She was on the other side.

She won, as 900-pound elephant seals usually do.

Earlier this year, I happened to be in New York during the Pizza Rat incident. Pizza Rat was a rat carrying a piece of pizza larger than its own body down some stairs on a subway platform. New Yorkers related, I guess. Here, the icon is Bathsheba de Tolay, the Highway Seal. She does what she wants, even when it's obviously stupid. You can't stop her, not even for her own good. The only hope, really, is to intervene after she's gotten what she wants.

elephant seal 3

She got to the other side. Then she got rescued. (Elizabeth Lopatto)

Several Marine Mammal people, holding wooden shields, cornered her. Shawn Johnson, the director of veterinary science, approached with a tranquilizer loaded onto a pole, and poked her. It didn't have much effect at first. Then she sagged against one of the shields, leaning on it as though she didn't feel like being upright anymore. And next she sank to the ground. It wasn't as fast as you'd expect, watching these things on the news, where the boring parts of standing by the highway or waiting for the seal to pass out get edited. After a few minutes, someone gently nudged her tail with a paddle, prompting her to lift her head — not out yet. We waited several more minutes before someone nudged again. This time, no response.

So they rolled her onto tarps and a group of no fewer than six men and women began to slide her toward a truck they'd rented. It had a hoist on the back; helpful, since lifting an elephant seal isn't easy, especially when said animal has gone all floppy from the tranquilizers. With concerted effort, they lifted her onto the hoist, and then into the truck. I came around the side and saw they'd put some fabric over her head. Someone removed it, to check on her, and I saw her eyes were open, though not very far.

They took some blood and tissue samples, and also ran an ultrasound. Sure enough: pregnant.

The plan was to take her to the rookery near Chimney Rock, in Pt. Reyes. There would be company there, other seals. She wouldn't be trapped inland. It was a good plan, and no one sensible would argue with it. The live trucks dispatched from the local news packed up. Pretty soon the traffic was moving smoothly. She'd been rescued. But first she crossed the road.

elephant seal 4

The tranquilized elephant seal, in the back of a truck. (Elizabeth Lopatto)

Video by James Temple and Vjeran Pavic.