by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing marine naturalist
They’re massive, goofy-looking and make sounds like no other animal. They’re also the enigmas of the seal world, spending only a few weeks on land before they head back to their true home—the open ocean.
It’s always a thrill when we spot a northern elephant seal on our whale watching tours from Victoria. Many of our guests have never seen one before. Some have never even heard of them. And there’s some irony to that. Just over 100 years ago, we came within a whisker of losing them all. Forever.
From now through March is one of the best times of the year to see elephant seals on our tours. So, let’s get better acquainted with the largest seal in the northern hemisphere. Here are seven things that may surprise you about northern elephant seals.
- THEY’RE SEALS ON STEROIDS
Did we mention they’re big? We can’t say this enough. Put a large male northern elephant seal on a scale against two average-sized cars, and the seal may still win. And that 6,000 lb. (2,700 kg) package of blubber, fur and bones can reach up to 14 feet (4.3 metres) long—roughly twice the length of a king-sized bed!
Or to put it another way, the males weigh the same as 44 average-sized humans. Females are three to four times smaller than the males, but still no slouches in the size department, weighing as much as 1,600 lb. or 725 kg (12 humans) and just over nine feet (2.7 metres) in length!
- THEY LOOK GOOFY FOR A REASON
It’s hard not to laugh at the appearance of an adult male elephant seal. His massive head is dominated by a large bulbous nose that droops over his mouth when he’s relaxed. It looks a bit like an elephant’s trunk, which is how the species got its name.
But don’t let that goofy appearance fool you. When he’s asserting his maleness—usually to rivals—he rears back his head and inflates that big schnoz like a balloon. Pointing the tip into his mouth, he uses it like a megaphone to make loud, clapping belches that sound like bongo drums in a cave. It’s his unique way of telling the younger lads: “Don’t even think about coming near me or my girls.” (see #6).
Listen to the calls of male elephant seals.
- THEY’RE OCEAN WANDERERS
While their harbour seal and sea lion cousins don’t stray far from land, elephant seals do just the opposite. Sure, they come ashore twice a year—once to make babies and once to moult (see #5) but for them, the deep ocean is where it’s at. They spend more than 80 per cent of their lives at sea—alone—and up to 90 per cent of that time deep under the surface! More on that in #4.
They’re also intrepid travellers. In between those two land visits we mention above—which occur mainly off Baja Mexico and southern California—elephant seals (especially the boys) can wander as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and the eastern Aleutian Islands. They’re the only mammal known to make two migrations a year, sometimes covering an astonishing 12,500 miles (20,000 km) a year!
- THEY’RE EXTREME DIVERS
More than 50 species of prey are on the elephant seal menu, but favourites are deep-water marine animals such as squid, ratfish and sharks. Good thing, then, that they’re divers extraordinaire—especially the females. Elephant seal bodies are superbly adapted for foraging at what would otherwise be bone-crushing depths in the pitch black of the deep ocean.
How deep? Female elephant seals can dive to almost 6,000 ft. (1,800 metres). And while the average dive time is 23 minutes, the longest recorded by a female elephant seal was almost two hours. Think about that the next time you’re watching a full-length movie!
Watch a female elephant seal slurp up a hagfish off the seafloor 3,000 ft. (900 metres) deep off the west coast of Vancouver Island.
- THEY’RE MOULTING MACHINES
For elephant seals there’s none of this “shedding your fur gradually throughout the year” nonsense. Nope. You get it done all at once so that you can get back to the open ocean and the important work of getting fat. So, once a year you come ashore and just lie there while your fur and first layer of skin peel off and replenish in what’s called a catastrophic moult. It’s like an extreme full body scrub day at the spa, except it lasts about a month!
While moulting—which looks awful, by the way—the seals don’t eat and only go in the water occasionally to cool off. They can lose up to 25 per cent of their body weight in the process. Generally, females moult in the spring, juveniles in early summer and adult males in late summer. We see moulting elephant seals at Race Rocks, and occasionally, on beaches around the Salish Sea.
- THEY’RE HOT-BLOODED LOVERS
Well, the boys are anyway. The girls, not so much. An elephant seal breeding ground, or rookery, is no place for the faint-hearted. For the males, being the biggest, baddest and most belligerent will get you the girls. For the girls, it’s do your duty for the species and then get the heck out of there. For the pups, it’s grow as fast as possible and try not to get squished in the midst of all the drama around you.
Breeding season for northern elephant seals runs from December to March, primarily on specific beaches off Mexico and southern California. Males arrive first, full of testosterone-fueled pugnacity. Inflating their long noses and making clap-threats (see #2), they bluster, chase, chest-butt and sometimes all-out fight each other to settle who’s boss. Then the females arrive. Within days each female gives birth to a squawking 90-lb pup (conceived the year before).
As the beachmaster male vigorously defends his harem from ever-hopeful lurking males, the pups nurse for about a month, gaining about 10 lb a day. Once mom’s job is done, she heads for the water to leave—and that’s usually when the male makes his move. Breeding season is a radical weight loss program for both sexes. Males lose up to a third of their body weight, females up to half.
The roly-poly weaner pups, meanwhile, enjoy their newly acquired blubber until hunger drives them into the water one or two months later. We see two or three pups every year at Race Rocks, which is the northernmost known breeding rookery for elephant seals. UPDATE: As of Jan.17, 2020, there are now three brand new elephant seal pups at Race Rocks and another recently arrived female is expected to give birth anytime! To get new updates visit Race Rocks Ecological Reserve
- THEY’RE SURVIVORS
This is what makes seeing an elephant seal so special. We almost lost them. In the 19th century, they were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands for their blubber, which was rendered into lamp oil. Understandably, their numbers nose-dived, and they were declared extinct in 1884.
Then, surprise! In 1892, a scientific expedition discovered nine elephant seals on Mexico’s Guadalupe Island. Inconceivably, the team killed seven of the seals for specimens. But once again, the seals endured. A remnant population—somewhere between 20 and 100—was later discovered on Guadalupe and given protection by Mexico and the US.
What this means is that all the northern elephant seals we see today—and there are an estimated 170,000 of them along the Pacific coast—are descendants of those few lucky survivors. How’s that for an amazing comeback story?
Book a tour with us and come out and see these incredible marine mammals for yourself!