THE PRIZE FOR THE TUBBIESTNEW YEAR’S BABY in the Victoria region surely goes to Bertha, the proud new mum of a 30-40 kg (66-88 lb) bundle of joy.
Ouch, you’re thinking.
Relax. Bertha is a northern elephant seal and she’s making news because a webcam is sending images of her maternal moments around the world. Bertha and new baby—born the night of Jan. 13—are hauled out at the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, about 15 km southwest of Victoria.
For those of you who have been on our tours—or who we hope to see soon—Race Rocks is one of those magical places that we love to take our passengers. It’s the site of BC’s second oldest lighthouse, and it’s teeming with life—above and below water—thanks to strong, nutrient-rich tidal currents.
There are many days when we can show you four species of pinniped at Race Rocks—including harbour seals, two types of sea lion and…northern elephant seals.
These lumbering giants have been regular visitors to Race Rocks since the mid-1990s and are now present pretty much year-round. They don’t come in big numbers here—last summer, 15 were counted on the rocks at one time—but their impressive size makes up for the sparse numbers. More on that in a minute.
Race Rocks Lighthouse PHOTO: Valerie Shore
WHAT’S REALLY GOT EVERYONE EXCITED is that they appear to have established a small new breeding colony at Race Rocks. Bertha’s new baby is living proof, and it’s not her first. In 2009, she popped out the first pup ever seen at Race Rocks. Several other females have given birth there too.
This makes Race Rocks the only known place in Canada where elephant seals breed.
Most of Bertha’s female kin give birth to their pups on islands off California and Baja Mexico at densely packed breeding colonies, where the enormous breeding bulls engage in violent and often bloody battles over groups of females.
Two adult males have been documented in recent years at Race Rocks, dubbed Misery and Chunk. They were seen sparring with each other in July 2013, and Misery has not been seen since. Chunk now rules!
On the boat, elephant seals are one of the coolest marine animals to talk about. They’re one of the ocean’s greatest athletes. They’re marathon travellers. And they are survivors from the brink of extinction.
An alpha bull elephant seal presides over a female and pup on a Baja Mexico beach. He’s waiting for a chance to mate. PHOTO: Valerie Shore
Here are 10 COOL FACTS about northern elephant seals:
They are the largestpinniped (includes seals, sea lion, walruses) in the northern hemisphere. Adult males can top the scales at 2,700 kg, or 6,000 lb. and reach lengths of more than 420 cm or 13 ft. That’s the equivalent of almost four Smart cars! Females are much smaller, but still pretty hefty at up to 700 kg or 1,500 lb. (one Smart car).
They get their name from their most distinctive feature—their nose. On males the snout is elongated and curves downward like an elephant’s trunk. During the breeding season he inflates it like a balloon to intimidate rivals. The noses of females and youngsters are not as flashy, extending only slightly beyond the mouth.
They’re seasoned ocean travellers, spending roughly 80 per cent of their lives at sea. When they’re not breeding or moulting, they fan out along the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and BC, feeding mainly in the deep waters off the continental slope. Some males go as far as the Gulf of Alaska and the eastern Aleutians. By the time they return to their breeding beaches, they may have travelled an astounding 21,000 km, or 13,000 miles!
They’re diving machines. They forage deeper, longer and more often than any other pinniped and most whales. The deepest recorded dive is more than 1.7 km and the longest is 109 minutes (both records set by females). They can dive repeatedly for weeks at a time, rarely spending more than four minutes resting at the surface. As much as 90 per cent of their time at sea is spent underwater!
They breed from late Decemberto early March. Elephant seal rookeries are noisy, harsh places, with females defending their bleating young and squabbling over space on the beach. And fending off the enormous, amorous males, which bellow, bluster and battle one another over who gets the girls. Sadly, the tiny pups sometimes get crushed in all this hormone-charged commotion.
They give birth after 11 months and nurse their pups for slightly more than a month. Mom doesn’t eat during this time, and may lose as much as 45 per cent of her body weight. When she leaves to feed, it’s for good. Her pudgy pup, or weaner, becomes a beach potato for a few weeks before hunger drives it into the sea.
They live up to 21 years (females) and 14 years (males). Their main predators are great white sharks and transient (mammal-hunting) killer whales.
They moult in an odd way. And it’s not a pretty sight. To get it over with in a short time frame, they undergo what’s called a catastrophic moult—they shed all of their fur along with the underlying layer of skin. They don’t eat during this time, and can lose up to 25 per cent of their body weight.
They came within a whisker of extinction. Or about 100 sets of whiskers, to be precise. That’s how many seals were left after thousands were slaughtered by 19th-century sealers seeking their blubber, considered a superior lubricant to whale oil. By the 1880s, they were thought to be extinct. But in 1892, a small group of 100 animals was discovered off Baja Mexico. Some of these were killed for scientific collections before the Mexican government finally protected them in 1911.
There are now an estimated 170,000 elephant seals in the North Pacific—all descendants of those few survivors.