Environment & Science

Why did the 900-pound elephant seal cross the road?

A 900-pound adult elephant seal nicknamed
A 900-pound adult elephant seal nicknamed "Tolay" attempted to cross Highway 37 yesterday afternoon near Tolay Creek in Sonoma County, California. Attempts to relocate the animal are underway.
California Highway Patrol

Why did the 900-pound elephant seal cross the road?  That's the riddle that's begat a nightmare traffic jam in Sonoma County — and it all started with a giant elephant seal.

The seal, nicknamed "Tolay" by the California Highway Patrol, tried to cross Highway 37 near Tolay Creek on Monday. When the word got out, drivers from all over the area began to flock to the site to see the seal for themselves, the California Highway Patrol told KPCC.

“Traffic is being completely bogged down by rubberneckers,” said California Highway Patrol spokesman Andrew Barclay. “We are not in the lane of traffic. We are on the shoulder. The only thing that is causing traffic right now is just people trying to slow down and take pictures of an elephant seal.”

Although Tolay has since moved from the road to nearby Tolay Creek, the Marine Mammal Center is working on a plan to move the animal out of the area entirely by Tuesday night. Rescue teams in kayaks made multiple unsuccessful efforts to relocate the mammal to San Pablo Bay on Tuesday morning. 

Giancarlo Rulli, a spokesman for the Marine Mammal Center, said its stranded marine mammal hotline started getting calls at 1 p.m. on Monday. Initial efforts by the San Pablo Bay National Marine Sanctuary to get the animal off the road were successful but the seal doggedly tried to cross the highway again so the team had to move her off the road a second time.

Female elephant seals spend their winters on the California coast to mate and give birth, according to the Marine Mammal Center, and that's led to speculation from veterinarians that Tolay could be pregnant. But there's no answer to that riddle yet.

As to the traffic, the California Highway Patrol says it is blocked and the best thing drivers can do is to keep it moving.

"Don't slow. Don't stop. It's dangerous not just for you but for people traveling with you," patrol spokesman Andrew Barclay told KPCC.