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Why Did the Twitter Meme Cross the Road?

Inside the mind of a wayward highway seal.


There’s nothing like a good escape story: Huck Finn, The Odyssey, Eat Pray Love. And so it’s only natural that, on a holiday week, reporters who are still shackled to their desks have pounced on the saga of a 900-pound jaywalking elephant seal and refused to let go. One Twitter faction named the aquatic Highway 37 interloper Tolay, after the waterway that won’t contain her; a rebellious Twitter cadre is going with the biblical Bathsheba. The Chronicle’s Kale Williams is on the scene, posting videos of kayakers unsuccessfully shooing Tolay-Bathsheba (Bathsheba de Tolay?) and live-tweeting the whole thing. Some are even cheering her on as she defies herding attempts and ignores loud airhorns in her quest for the other side of the road, where there’s no food, water, or obvious social draw. “Secretly rooting for Bathsheba the highway seal,” tweeted Williams. “Bathsheba is every woman,” opined Julia Carrie Wong. “I love her,” declared the Verge’s Liz Lopatto. As we type this, Pixar is probably securing rights to its 2017 release, Bathsheba de Tolay.

The question remains, though: Why is this seal so determined to cross Highway 37? We reached elephant seal expert Dr. Pam Yochem, executive vice president of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute in San Diego, to find out what sends a pinniped over land. Not only do we need to know for scientific reasons, but Ryan Gosling’s going to want this knowledge when he plays a CHP officer with a heart of gold in the theatrical release.

Contrary to the the wishes of marine handlers and motorists, who very much want Bathsheba to stay in the water, elephant seals want to amble onto land this time of year to give birth and mate. One going theory is that Bathsheba is pregnant—not confirmable without an ultrasound, one expert told the Chronicle—and if that’s true, she may be looking for a place to pup. Once female elephant seals leave the water to give birth (and males, to mate), they stay on land, fasting, for three to four weeks, says Yochem. “So it’s not like she’d be concerned about having easy access to water,” she explains. “It’s not unusual that they crawl farther inland than seems to make sense to us.”

The concern, though, is that if Bathsheba is allowed to cross the highway, she’ll just have to cross back later to return to the water, which is dangerous both for her and for drivers. As Williams reports via Twitter, if Bathsheba returns to land, handlers from the Marine Mammal Center will sedate her and take her to Point Reyes. But that approach relies on her coming out of the water, and for now, she’s still swimming, hugging the shore. As seal and sea lion expert Doyle Hanan puts it, “these animals are stubborn. If a 900-pound animal decides they want to do something”—or not do it—“they’ll do it.”

But if Bathsheba isn’t pregnant? Her venture out of a traditional habitat could be the result of a growing elephant seal population, says Yochem. “We do see inexperienced animals hauling out in unusual locations. That’s how range expansions happen,” she adds, referring to the growth in territory that comes with a population increase. “There have to be a few animals that check out those new sites for a new colony to be set up there.”

In that case, the thwarting of Bathsheba is probably a good thing. (Sorry, Twitter!) If she’s really the pioneer she is in our imaginations and Tweetdecks, that’s the very reason it’s unwise for her to succeed. Man, that Pixar soundtrack is going to be bittersweet.

Update: Just after 3 p.m. this afternoon, a veterinarian from the Marine Mammal Center successfully tranquilized the elephant seal. She'll be en route to deeper waters forthwith.

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