The Southern elephant seal is known to Māori as ihupuku (translation: swollen nose) or ihu koropuka (translation: old man form). While they get their name from their enormouse size and large noses, the first thing I noticed about them was their smell. I’ve heard their scent be compared to a bucket of seaweed that has been left in a hot car in the hieght of summer, so you can imagine how violated my nostrils were after spending a few days on with a large number of them.
They can reach enormous sizes – females weigh in at between 400 and 900 kilograms, whereas the males can weigh anywhere between 2,200 and 4000 kilograms. The largest recorded elephant seal was shot in Possession Bay in South Georgia in 1913 and was estimated to weigh 5000 kilograms. They’re the largest living pinniped species and are the largest in the order of carnivora.
Their diet consists mainly of squid, fish, and crustaceans. They will spend most of their time diving between 400 and 1000 metres in-depth to access their prey and understandably spend a large proportion of their time feeding – all the better to maintain their enormous size. Studies have shown that when they are not on Sub-Antarctic Islands to breed, their main foraging area is on the edge of the Antarctic continent. They will occasionally go ashore in Antarctica, but only to sleep or mate.
Their breeding rituals are interesting, especially when you consider that males can be up to ten times heavier than females! Within New Zealand’s waters, the main breeding sites for the Elephant Seals are on Campbell Island and the Antipodes Islands. There are occassionally pups born on the coast of Otago, although this is rare. Pups are born between September and October and their mothers will leave them to fend for themselves after 3 weeks. Most females will breed at around 4 years of age.
Males compete for access to females. They will fight to be the master of any beach where females gather by raising themselves up and smashing into one another. This means that a small number of large males are successful at mating and so there is a strong selection for larger males as females want their juveniles to be able to compete for access to beaches in the future.
The pups are born with fur and are black. They will moult after being weaned from their mother and disperse once their new, water-proof coat has formed. Their original ‘pup-coat’ is solely to insulate them against the harsh Sub-Antarctic climate. Once they complete their moult, they are a grey or brown colour and once the males grow up their skin is often scarred during fights to gain access to breeding grounds.
I visited Macquarie Island in mid-December when the adults had left the juveniles to cause trouble on their own, with only a few remaining to moult. After being shown some adorable seal pictures by a friend, I thought I would take a trip down memory lane and pull out some of my favourites from my trip. Now all I need are captions – can you help me out? Leave me a comment with your caption OR comment on these photos on my Facebook page.