A Roadside Attraction ... Right On Time

John Blackstone is a CBS News correspondent.

"You should have been here yesterday."

As a TV news reporter, I have heard that too many times.

It goes like this: We learn of something interesting happening and head off with a camera crew ready to record it all on video. But when we get to the location we hear the dreaded phrase: "You should have been here yesterday."

So often, whatever it is that we want to take pictures of seems to take a break just as we arrive.

I was a little concerned when we headed down the California coast to do a story on elephant seals behaving badly. Elephant seals can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, so when they behave badly it can be a big story … particularly if what they're doing is wandering onto a busy state highway.

More than a decade ago elephant seals started showing up on a narrow beach at Piedras Blancas, about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. That was unusual because normally these huge mammals choose isolated beaches to mate and give birth. The beach at Piedras Blancas however is right beside Highway One, one of the most popular tourist routes in California. The colony here has grown impressively. Now between December and March as many as 15,000 elephant seals crowd onto the beach right beside the highway.

What's good for tourists is that they can see one of nature's strangest creatures up close. What's bad is that this year some of the elephant seals have gone wondering. Somehow several have made it past the fence separating the beach from Highway One. Needless to say it can get dangerous when an elephant seal the size of a pickup truck gets into the middle of the road. So when a seal ends up where it shouldn't the park ranger quickly organizes a posse to urge it back where it belongs.

But for us to plan to capture this on video was a clear invitation to hear "You should have been here yesterday!"

My expectations of success were low when we arrived at the beach. Then California State Park Ranger Leander Tamoria pulled up and asked: "Did you buy a lottery ticket today?" Then he said: "This is your lucky day."

Just as we arrived a 1,500-pound elephant seal was sunning himself well away from the beach, dangerously close to the road. Exactly the story we had come for … but one I worried would be very hard to actually capture on video.

We were there as Ranger Leander instructed his posse "nudge" the seal. How do you nudge a 1,500 pound seal?

"Very carefully," Leander said.

Three SUV's with sirens and four men carrying long plastic poles began slowly approaching the big seal. It didn't frighten easily but eventually it started moving, looking something like a big blubbery caterpillar. The posse patiently urged it across the field and down a steep bank to the beach. All right in front of our camera.

So the next time I show up somewhere only to be told: "You should have been here yesterday." I will be able to say, "Yeah, but I did see an elephant seal being chased across a pasture." And that's not something you see everyday.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.