Dive Deeper With Our Winter Wildlife Docents
The amazing world of the northern elephant seals and Pacific gray whales are just a short bus ride away for visitors to Point Reyes National Seashore. Winter marks the return of these majestic marine mammals and you can learn about their lives, habits, and how humans can protect these animals by talking with one of the park’s informative Winter Wildlife docents.
Since 1995 the National Park Service staff has trained docents to help visitors spot and learn about the park’s winter wildlife. Outfitted with bright red vests, scopes, educational materials, and a deep knowledge of the natural history, these volunteers enthusiastically answer questions about migrating whales, breeding elephant seals, sharks, otters, wildflowers and more. You can find the docents on weekends and holidays December through April stationed at various locations including Drakes Beach, the Elephant Seal Overlook, the Historic Lifeboat Station, Chimney Rock, and the deck above the Point Reyes Lighthouse.
"The Winter Wildlife Docent Program is the backbone of the park's winter program, linking visitor services and science, to ensure that the Seashore remains a haven for wildlife and an inspiration to future generations,” says Sarah Allen, Ocean and Coastal Resources Program Lead for National Park Service’s Pacific West Region. This year’s cadre of docents numbers 71 and each guide helps the Nantional Park Service connect with visitors and share the story of how protection has saved elephant seals and gray whales from extinction.
In his third season as a guide, Paul Newacheck expertly answers questions lobbed at him by visitors on a beautiful Sunday in January at Chimney Rock. The most frequent questions he gets are what are the elephant seals doing on the beach and why aren’t they moving? On that day docents helped 519 visitors see and learn more during their time at the Point Reyes Headland.
Like many docents, Paul is a long-time visitor and fan of the park (he’s been camping here since the 70s) and is inspired to give back because of all of his own great experiences. “When I saw a flyer asking for volunteers it seemed like the natural thing for me to do,” he said.
Docents volunteer a minimum of seven full days over the winter season. Rain or shine they show up to share their passion and knowledge with visitors. What they get in return, says long-time docent Frank Binney are some quite special days. “Sometimes it’s the way weather and light paint an amazing panorama; other times it’s when I witness a rare ‘National Geographic moment’ with the wildlife or have a particularly meaningful conversation with a visitor.”
Paul described one such moment when he witnessed a battle for dominance between two bull elephant seals. Just as amazing as the wildlife observations are the people he meets on his visits, including a large number of visitors from abroad. “I think it is terrific that they make their way to Point Reyes.They are always impressed with the beauty of Point Reyes and often comment on how they have nothing comparable to the breadth and beauty of our national parks in their own countries.”
Frank echoes this feeling: “When I help a visitor make an emotional, personal connection to some aspect of the Seashore that moves them from just being ‘here because my family or friends dragged me along’ to a deeper understanding and appreciation of what the Seashore has to offer. Oftentimes that magical moment happens when people see their first whale, an elephant seal giving birth or males fighting for dominance.”
The docent program comes with some other rewards, including accommodations for volunteers at the Historic Life Boat Station at Chimney Rock, in-depth trainings, a season end celebration dinner, and the chance to spend time with other park enthusiasts. “The park’s docent programs provide a great way to make friends with a fascinating bunch of fellow docents while enjoying a wide range of outdoor experiences in the Seashore,” says Frank.
You can visit with our incredible Winter Wildlife docents and deepen your understanding of the park and its fauna and flora by hopping on a Winter Wildlife Shuttle Bus at Drake’s Beach parking lot weekends and holiday through April. Simply purchase a ticket ($5 per person; children under 16 are free) at the park visitor center at Drakes Beach. Get off at the first stop to visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse and docents who focus on whale watching. Get off at the second stop to visit the docents at the Elephant Seal Overlook and Historic Lifeboat Station.
Become a Docent
Are you interested in joining the docent team? Contact Ranger Anela Ramos for information about training to join next year’s docent group. Tel: (415) 464-5146 or Anela_Ramos@nps.gov.