Featured Creature: Elephant Seals

Momma elephant seal and baby; Photo: Tania Roa

Which marine creature is named after a terrestrial one, possesses a unique facial feature, and has inspired crowds of people to visit California’s central coast?

Elephant seals!

Momma elephant seal and baby; Photo: Tania Roa

One sunny morning (which is normal for California), I woke up to drive up the coast from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo. I had one goal in mind: find the elephant seal colony that comes ashore to mate and breed. After five hours along PCH (Pacific Coast Highway), I found these loud, yet sleepy creatures. As an amateur wildlife photographer, I often get a small window to capture a shot before an animal scurries or swims away. This time, however, the colony of nearly 100 had nowhere to go, and no reason to be afraid of me since a five foot cliff stood between me and their beach home. Being able to watch their behaviors, without feeling rushed, gave me time to appreciate how marvelous these creatures are. Needless to say, the drive was worth it. 

To get a glimpse of what my day was like, watch this video by the local aquarium.

Baby elephant seal; Photo: Tania Roa

Ellies of the sea

There are two species of elephant seals: northern and southern. Northern elephant seals grace California’s central coastline every year during breeding season, while Southern elephant seals prefer to breed on sub-Antarctic islands. Northern elephant seals are slightly smaller, but both species are still enormous – they could weigh up to 8,800 lbs (3,991 kg) and reach 20 ft (about 7 m) in length! Males could weigh up to ten times more than their female counterparts.

Elephant seals get their name not from their size, but from the male’s infamous nose that’s similar to an elephant’s trunk. Bulls, or adult males, have a long nose, or proboscis, that is used to produce loud roaring noises. They make these noises mostly during mating season when claiming and defending their territory, including their harem of forty to fifty females. 

Male elephant seal – notice the scratches on his body, likely from competing with other males; Photo: Tania Roa

Elegant underwater

While slower and less graceful on land (similar to other seals), elephant seals are quick underwater. Their streamlined body, covered in blubber for warmth and to reduce drag while swimming, is perfect for chasing ocean-dwelling prey. These ‘true seals,’ meaning they have no external ears, base their prey options on their sex and migration routes. Females prefer fish that are in deeper waters, including lanternfish, ragfish, and hake. These delicacies are often on the move, so female migration routes lack consistency compared to males who prefer slower-moving, bottom-dwelling animals such as octopuses, skates, squid, small sharks, and eels. 

Due to the nature of each diet, females tend to dive deeper, but both males and females can reach ocean depths of 5,090 ft (1,550 m) per dive. During these dives, they can hold their breath for more than 100 minutes! That’s a record for all non-marine mammals. Between each dive, they rest for only a matter of minutes. This constant search for food leads them to cover 60 miles in one day. 

Female elephant seal; Photo: Tania Roa

It’s all in the blood

Elephant seals spend up to 80% of their lives in the ocean. Even if you’ve never visited the Pacific or Southern oceans, you likely know one thing about them: they are cold. Spending more than half your life in these frigid waters means you need an efficient way of keeping warm. To  maintain their internal temperature, elephant seals rely on their blood. 

When measuring pound for pound, elephant seals have three times as much blood as humans. Their blood is also richer in hemoglobin, the molecule that transports oxygen throughout our bodies. Imagine getting into a cold shower or dipping your toes into a cold ocean – what’s the first thing you feel? Most likely, you feel shocked. As your body gets accustomed to this new, colder temperature, it prioritizes where to send oxygen. Our bodies are built for survival, and they want to make sure our most vital organs get oxygen first. The same reaction happens in the circulatory system of elephant seals, but on a much larger scale. This means their metabolism drops, and they are able to make the most of every breath of air (which they’ll need on those long, icy dives!). 

Male elephant seal calling out to show who’s boss (See the other male in the back right corner – Do you think he looks worried?); Photo:Tania Roa

Large but vulnerable

There was once a time where these boisterous, lovely creatures stopped gracing California’s coastline. After years of hunting for their blubber to make oil, both species were on the brink of extinction. Thankfully, authorities took action before the irreversible damage took place and declared both species as legally protected. Since then, numbers have rebounded and people, like me, are able to enjoy the life elephant seals bring to otherwise quiet beaches. 

Under the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act, Northern elephant seals are protected throughout their migration routes. Despite this protection, which is one of the most prominent federal policies concerning wildlife, other threats including entanglement in fishing gear and boat collisions remain, but NOAA fisheries monitor these threats and provide interventions when needed. To protect Southern elephant seals, the Convention of Antarctic Seals regulates human hunting practices. 

Although there was a time where we humans nearly led elephant seals to extinction, there came a later, important change of heart where we realized our mistakes, took action, and the results spoke for themselves. From grassroots activism to nationwide and intercontinental policies, we can restore what has been lost, and prevent more from being lost. We just need to get to that turning point.

Sealed with appreciation,