Eephant seals

Wildlife Watch: Southern Elephant Seal

Eephant seals

The Southern elephant seal is an animal with an amazing number of accolades: Largest pinniped and deepest diving are just two very impressive records established by these incredible creatures. I have been extremely fortunate to observe Southern elephant seals at many haul sites on International Expeditions' Antarctica and Patagonia tours.

Southern Elephant Seal Quick Facts:

  • There are only two species of elephant seals: northern elephant seal and southern elephant seal. They derive their name from the hemisphere they are found in.
  • Elephant seals were hunted brink of extinction before being declared a protected species during the 19th century.

  • Males elephant seals can sire as many as 500 pups.

The Southern elephant seal is the largest seal, even longer and heavier than the Northern elephant seal and the walrus. Large bulls may reach 7,000 pounds, with the record belonging to a monster elephant seal that was shot on South Georgia Island in 1913. That elephant seal was a massive 22.5 feet in length and weighed 11,000 pounds. These are also the largest of the order carnivora, considerably larger than the polar bear, brown bear, African lion and Bengal tiger. Elephant seals are named for their extremely large nose...almost like a shortened version of an elephant’s trunk. The large nose is proudly only a male characteristic. Males battle each other for breeding rights with a harem of females and the nose is used to produce an incredible array of noises that reverberate in the highly flexible proboscis. Males battle fiercely and the sight of two huge bulls fighting is not soon forgotten. There is often considerable biting and tearing of skin and blubber by the large canine teeth of these huge seals. Virtually all adult bulls carry battle scars from previous year’s dominance fights. I have, unfortunately been on haul beaches where the stench of a big bull that has perished, permeates the air, especially down wind, for quite some distance. Penguin colonies are quite odiferous, but the stench of a decomposing 7,000 pound seal is something that has to be experienced as no words can adequately describe such a smell. Amazingly, live elephant seals will lay right next to a decomposing carcass as if oblivious to the smell of the fallen male.

Southern elephant seals also hold the record for deepest dives for a pinniped and actually, only the sperm whale is known to dive deeper than the elephant seal. The record diving depth is almost 8,000 feet deep, although most dives are less than 2,000 feet in depth. Males dive deeper than females and males may remain submerged for over 1.5 hours. Their dives take them down to their prey which consists of large fish, squid, skates and rays.

At known haul out sights, numbers of Southern elephant seals may be observed lounging on gravel or sandy low lying beaches. While molting (shedding of skin), elephant seals are more susceptible to the cold and thus they do not enter the water during this time. Large patches of skin and fur are shed and the seals almost appear to be diseased when in this condition. Once the new fur and skin is intact, they once again enter the ocean, where they actually spend a majority of their life. On most trips to Patagonia, the observation of a group of Southern elephant seals will certainly be one of the many highlights of a trip. Knowing a little bit of the amazing natural history of these creatures will make one even more greatly admire these giant behemoths of the Southern tip of South America.