Sweet dreams for an elephant seal

Sea life: Southern elephant seals

Elephant seal busy moulting
Elephant seal busy moulting

A juvenile southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) has been seen around the Cape Peninsula for a couple of months. Almost every year solitary individuals are spotted resting on our shores, but they remain uncommon visitors and always cause a bit of excitement. Their usual habitat is subantarctic and Antarctic waters, including the islands belonging to South Africa and New Zealand, the Falkland Islands, and select parts of continental South America. They feed in Antarctic waters and spend winter down by the pack ice, insulated by tremendous layers of blubber. They are expert divers and can hold their breaths for two hours at a stretch.

Elephant seal cooling off with damp sand
Elephant seal cooling off with damp sand

Southern elephant seals are the largest seals, with the males (which can weigh up to 4,000 kilograms and grow to six metres in length) as much as six times larger than the females, which weigh 400-900 kilograms and grow to between 2.5 and 3 metres in length. At sexual maturity the males develop a big, inflatable rubbery snout (more correctly called a proboscis). This gives them their name, thanks to its rudimentary resemblance to an elephant’s trunk.

Juvenile seals are weaned and leave their mothers when they weigh about 120 kilograms. At this point they are just under a month old. This particular seal, which we saw hauled out near Cape Point, was at least two metres long already, and was busy moulting. During this time, the seal loses (as you can see in the top image) and regrows its fur. Some of its blood supply is diverted towards its skin to facilitate hair growth. Moulting happens during summer, and takes about a month (because it happens so suddenly, it is called a “catastrophic moult”). During this time the seals stay out of the water and possibly do not eat. Lying on the beach, well insulated with blubber, can cause them to overheat, so the seal we saw was flicking damp sand over his (or her) back to cool down.

As far as their conservation status goes, they are listed as of least concern on the IUCN Red List. They are probably helped by living so far from human activity, although they are still affected by plastic pollution, boat strikes and the like.

If you do see one of these animals, don’t be a jerk. Keep your distance (at least 20 metres) and don’t completely surround the seal. This ensures the animal stays happy and calm, and sets an example for others who may not have your good attitude, excellent education and experience with animals. Also, seals can move surprisingly fast on land, and an elephant seal is almost certainly going to weigh a lot more than you do. Tony took these pictures from a respectful distance, with his 150-500 zoom lens.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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