On a sparkling blue January morning, I meet marine biologist Patrick Robinson, who will escort me around Año Nuevo State Park, a patch of dunes and bluffs an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. As we start along a sandy path toward the beach, he explains that his role is not only to protect me from the thousands of elephant seals currently camped out here, but to protect the elephant seals from me. That sounds sensible enough—until we come over a rise and I see what they actually look like in the flesh.
Northern elephant seals are well named because adult males have large noses that resemble an elephant’s trunk. Males begin developing this enlarged nose, or proboscis, when they reach puberty at about five years, and it is fully developed by eight to nine years. Adult males may grow to 14-16 feet (4-5 m) in length and weigh up to 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg). The females are much smaller at 9-12 feet (2.5-4 m) in length and 900-1,800 pounds (400-800 kg). The northern elephant seal is the second largest seal in the world, after the southern elephant seal. The elephant seal is in the phocid, or true seal, family. It lacks external ear flaps and moves on land by flopping on its belly. The elephant seal has a broad, round face with very large eyes. Pups are 3 to 4 feet (1 m) long at birth and weigh about 70 pounds (32 kg). They are born with a black coat which is molted, or shed, at about the time of weaning (28 days), revealing a sleek, silver-gray coat. Within a year, the coat will turn silvery brown.
Elephant seals got their name because adult males have large noses that resemble an elephant’s trunk. Males begin developing this enlarged nose, or proboscis, at sexual maturity, which is at about three to five years old. Their proboscis is fully developed once the seal reaches around 7 to 9 years old
Reproduction In Male Elephant Seal
At sea, elephant seals range solo. They return to established breeding colonies each winter. Females become mature around 3 to 6 years of age, while males mature at 5 to 6 years.
However, males need to achieve alpha status to mate, which is normally between the ages of 9 and 12. Males battle each other using bodyweight and teeth. While deaths are rare, scarring is common. An alpha male’s harem ranges from 30 to 100 females. Other males wait on the edges of the colony, sometimes mating with females before the alpha male chases them away. Males remain on land over the winter to defend territory, meaning they don’t leave to hunt.
Habitat & Population Status Of Elephant Seal
Northern elephant seals are found in the North Pacific, ranging from Baja California, Mexico, to the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. Their breeding grounds are offshore islands, such as the Channel Islands, Año Nuevo, Point Reyes and Piedras Blancas.
Males have been observed further north toward the Alaskan continental shelf while females feed in the open ocean.
Did you know that the northern elephant seal is a conservation success story? After whales became scarce, elephant seals were hunted to the brink of extinction primarily for their blubber, which people used for lamp oil. By 1910, it was estimated that there were fewer than 100 elephant seals, all found on Guadalupe Island off Baja California, Mexico.
Migration Of Elephant Seal
Elephant seals migrate in search of food, spending months at sea and often diving deep to forage. They return to their rookeries in winter to breed and give birth. Though both male and female elephant seals spend time at sea, their migration routes and feeding habits differ: Males follow a more consistent route while females vary their routes in pursuit of moving prey.
Elephant seals were aggressively hunted for their oil, and their numbers were once reduced to the brink of extinction. Fortunately, populations have rebounded under legal protections.
Northern Elephant Seals
Northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) can be found in California and Baja California, though they prefer to frequent offshore islands rather than the North American mainland.
Southern Elephant Seals
Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) live in sub-Antarctic and Antarctic waters that feature brutally cold conditions but are rich in the fish, squid, and other marine foods these seals enjoy. Southern elephant seals breed on land but spend their winters in the frigid Antarctic waters near the Antarctic pack ice.
How Friendly Are Elephant Seals?
Antarctic seals are generally completely unafraid of man despite the inglorious days of sealing when hundreds of thousands of them were killed fir their fur and/or blubber. Being big, possessed of much blubber and congregating conveniently in large numbers on beaches, elephant seals were one of the preferred target species on an industrial scale being killed right up until 1964 at South Georgia.
These days the recommendation is to stay considerably further away than the man in the picture to the right is, the small weaned pup in the foreground has just had his very close-fitting personal space invaded and isn’t that happy – although he doesn’t seem to be that bothered either to be honest. The larger and older seals nearby seem completely unflustered.
What Are Southern Elephant Seals Like?
There are two species of elephant seals in the world, the Northern Elephant Seal that is found in the eastern and northern Pacific Ocean and the Southern Elephant seal that is found almost circumpolar around Antarctica. The Southern Elephant seal is the largest of all the world’s seal species, southern males are up to 50% heavier and females 20% heavier than their northern counterparts. They are enormous animals that regularly reach 2,000 kg and may weigh up to 4 tonnes (8 800lb).
Elephant seals have been hunted for their meat, fur, and blubber. Both northern and southern elephant seals were hunted to the brink of extinction. By 1892, most people believed the northern seals to be extinct. But in 1910, a single breeding colony was found around Guadalupe Island off Mexico’s Baja California coast. At the end of the 19th century, new marine conservation legislation was put in place to protect the seals. Today, elephant seals are no longer endangered, although they are at risk of entanglement in debris and fishing nets and from injury due to boat collisions. The IUCN lists the threat level as being of “least concern.”