You know the saying: When the cat’s away the mice will play. It appears the Bay Area is ready to coin a new turn of phrase: When the rangers are gone the elephant seals will swarm.

When tourism decreased and wildlife management staff were furloughed during the government shutdown, an elephant seal colony in Point Reyes National Seashore spread from their normal spot on the beach to an area normally frequented by humans.

The seals took over at Drakes Beach, knocking down a fence and moving into the parking lot, and they remained lounging in the sand after the park reopened Sunday, leading staff to close the road from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to the beach.

Elephant seals take over Drakes Beach parking lot. Photo: Chronicle Graphic

Photo: Chronicle Graphic

Elephant seals take over Drakes Beach parking lot.

The park is home to a colony of about 1,500 elephant seals and John Dell’Osso, chief of interpretation and resource education for the seashore, says they tend to frequent Chimney Beach. That stretch of waterfront features 100-foot-tall cliffs keep them protected and mostly hidden from the public.

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In the past, a seal or two has popped up on the wide Drakes Beach that’s popular with visitors, and  now 50 to 60 adults who’ve birthed 35 pups have hunkered down. Last week, one seal even adventured under a picnic table near the cafe.

Dell’Osso thinks the recent storms and high-tides inundated the elephant seal habitat with water at Chimney Beach and so they sought a wider swath of dry real estate around the corner.

If this hadn’t occurred during the government shutdown, Dell’Osso says wildlife management likely would have discouraged the seals from congregating in the area popular with tourists. Winter is when the seals are birthing and nursing pups.

“Sometimes you go out with tarps and you shake the tarps and it annoys them and they move the other direction,” he says. “It doesn’t scare them and it’s a standard technique used with elephant seals. This would have kept them farther away from tourists.”

But since nobody was at work to address the seal migration, the park has decided to embrace the new home and keep the road temporarily closed.

Dell’Osso says staff are exploring the possibility of offering guided tours of the Drakes Beach elephant colony, similar to what’s offered at Año Nuevo State Park, without disturbing the animals.