Photographers can wait hours or even days to capture rare moments. Sometimes they unfold very quickly. I was in the right place, at the right time, to capture a coyote attack on harbor seals earlier this year at Point Reyes National Seashore. It was my first outing since the pandemic started, making it all the more memorable.
I’ve seen my fair share of coyotes in the park, but never in the middle of Drakes Estero 1,200+ feet from shore. The coyote was taking advantage of a very low tide, roaming acres of exposed sand banks and crossing shallow tributaries. At first I thought it was in search of a free meal, but it’s eyes were locked on a distant group of harbor seals that I was observing.
Harbor seals are incredibly skittish. I’ve seen large herds bolt into the water after a slight disturbance, which is particularly problematic during pupping season. New born pups can be abandoned by their mothers, which is why the estuary is off limits to kayaks during this period. I was at the edge of Drake’s Estero, hiding behind a sand dune.
As I watched the coyote slowly approach the harbor seals, I figured it would be a matter of time before they noticed an approaching predator. I was wrong, very wrong. The seals were oblivious to the threat. It’s hard to estimate the distance since a zooms lens compresses space, but I’m guessing the coyote was about 20 feet away before the seals panicked. A short enough distance for the coyote to gain ground and attempt a kill.
For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. The coyote raced all the way to the waters edge, within inches of the seals, but eased off at the final moment. With enough aggression, the coyote could have easily lunged at one of the seals, and even bypassed a pup for a larger adult. It never even opened it’s mouth.
I suspect the coyote would have had a tough time wrestling a seal to submission. Their blubber forms a heavy-duty layer of protection, more easily pierced by sharks than canines, but I’m no expert. I actually think the coyote was a juvenile, and judging by it’s scrawny build, could have probably used a solid meal. Hopefully that desperation was satiated, but it wasn’t at the expense of a seal on this day.
Shortly after posting these photos on Instagram, Point Reyes NPS reached out and said, “We have had an increase in sightings of coyotes in Drakes Estero in recent years, but have not witnessed an attempted attack.” Helping people form a better understanding of animal behavior and activity is incredibly gratifying.
Here’s the full sequence of events over eight frames, best viewed on a laptop or desktop: