It's 7 a.m. George Larson slides behind the wheel of his white Toyota Camry. His wife, Sandra, makes herself comfortable in the passenger seat. She knows she soon will be dozing off, leaving her husband to drive them safely to their destination, more than two hours away.
It’s a ritual the Shafter, Calif., couple has followed nearly every week for the past five years. It’s their trek to the Central California coast, where they volunteer as docents, or guides, at Piedras Blancas, a rookery for elephant seals, north of San Simeon on Highway 1.
“We probably travel the farthest of all the docents,” said Larson, whose fascination with elephant seals dates back to the early 1990s, when the huge, oddly shaped, magnificent animals took over a once popular fishing and hiking beach.
At first, George and Sandra Larson simply joined others who pulled off the highway to gawk at the elephant seals’ invasion. “We were able to get so close to so many wild animals.”
But that closeness became a problem. As the number of seals increased, contact with humans, particularly with people who also wanted to use the beach, created conflicts. While elephant seals may appear docile and harmless, they are wild and powerful animals.
To protect both humans and elephant seals, Friends of the Elephant Seal, a non-profit organization, was established. The organization trains docents, who help separate humans and elephant seals, while promoting better understanding of the animals and their habitat.
George Larson, a retired Shafter High School teacher, and his wife, Sandra, who retired as an administrator with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, trained in 2004 to become docents, beginning their regular trips to Piedras Blancas. Often they are accompanied by friends Jim Siler and his wife, Margo, retired Richland School District teachers. Jim Siler became a docent a year ago.
George Larson is now on the board of the Friends of the Elephant Seal. He recruits volunteers to become docents through service club presentations and word-of-mouth. Three weekend docent training sessions will be held in October. To sign up or learn more about volunteering, go to www.elephantseal.org or e-mail Larson at email@example.com.
“I have always liked animals of all kinds. But these wild animals are fascinating,” said Larson, who is no stranger to animals. His father, who worked in the race horse business, moved his family to Shafter when Larson was 15. Harness racing was popular in those days, with ranches and training tracks scattered throughout California. Larson’s father was the superintendent of a Shafter ranch, handling breeding and training operations.
But the athletic son wanted to play football and baseball, instead of going into horse racing. He enrolled as a history major at the University of Redlands, in Southern California, where he met Sandra. Later he went into the Marine Corps for eight years, enrolling at California State University at Humboldt when he left the military. Initially he hoped to pursue a career in the parks service. But agencies were not hiring and he returned home to Kern County to begin a teaching career.
Being a docent has combined his two career interests – teaching and parks service. Docents answer the questions of thousands of visitors from throughout the world who pull off Highway 1 at Piedras Blancas to watch the elephant seals.
The Piedras Blancas parking lot falls under the jurisdiction of the California Department of Transportation. In recent years, the Hearst Corp. donated the five miles of coastline to the California Parks Department to protect the elephant seals’ habitat.
As are most volunteers and paid staff associated with California parks, Larson and fellow docents are worried about budget cutbacks that threaten to close 100 state parks. But the state’s concerns about liability, lost revenue and obligations to private contractors have stalled the announcement of park closures.
“Docents save state parks a lot of money,” Larson noted, explaining that without the docents’ presence at Piedras Blancas, security and other staffing would have to be increased. Friends of the Elephant Seal also raises money for improvements to give visitors a better view of the animals.
Sheryl Watson, a state parks spokeswoman, agrees that the willingness of people to volunteer is critical in these financially stressed times. Watson’s department is seeking corporate sponsorships and collaborative arrangements with local government agencies to keep the gates open to some state parks.
And while volunteers alone cannot replace specially-trained laid-off employees or make up the difference in the shortfall of tax revenues to operate state parks, they can help with maintenance, visitor services and fund raising.
The Parks Department so values its Central Coast volunteers that they rewarded some with the most donated hours with a special dip in the outdoor pool at Hearst Castle last month. George and Sandra Larson were among those invited.
Watson noted that many opportunities exist for people to volunteer in state parks. Go to the website www.parks.ca.gov and click onto: “Become a Parks Volunteer.”
“Every day I spend over there [Piedras Blancas] as a docent is like the best day I had teaching,” said Larson, whose rich, three-decades-long Kern High School District career included teaching history and coaching a variety of sports.
HOW TO VOLUNTEER
To become a docent at the elephant seals’ Piedras Blancas viewing area, go to www.elephantseal.org. Three weekend training sessions will be held in October.
To become a volunteer in a California state park, go to www.parks.ca.gov, click onto “Become a Park Volunteer.”
In photo above, George Larson explains the elephant seals' habitat to visitors.
A version of this story written by Dianne Hardisty appeared in The Bakersfield Californian on Sept. 22, 2009.