Elephants of the Seas
Elephant seals of South Georgia Island - their life and times
What? Elephants? In the seas? Yes indeed! These are the largest carnivores on earth and weigh as much as an African elephant. In size too, they can grow up to 20 ft. The males are six times heavier than the apex land predator, the polar bear. They also have a large proboscis hence the name - elephant seals. The females lack this appendage and are much smaller in size - they weight ten times less than the bulls. The Southern elephant seals are larger than their Northern cousins.
Adult male posturing to drive off a challenger.
They spend 90% of their life underwater, diving as deep as 5000ft and can hold their breath for up to 100 minutes. During the breeding season however, they come on land. The big males first establish a territory on a beach and prevent any other males from encroaching. They are aided by smaller males who serve as 'beta' males. The big guy is known as the "Beach Master". When the females leave the water to give birth, they come under the 'protection' of the big fellow. A single bull can have as many as 50 or more females in his harem and usually rests in the middle of his females while the 'beta' bull patrols his territory from the outside, occasionally getting to mate with one of the females while the boss is not looking. The Master prevents other challengers from mating with his females by a show of strength. He does this by posturing or making a loud roaring sound and blowing out his breath. Fights are rare but when do occur are violent and bloody. During the mating season which can last for up to two months, the males do not eat. and can lose up to a third of their body weight.
The Beach Master
Big Bull blowing off steam to warn off the competition
Big male with female - note the size difference
The male, once in the water will not leave the female alone.
Young female eyeing the male warily.
Young males practicing posturing and mock fighting
Once a female gives birth she nurses the pup for 3-4 weeks during which time she fasts and can also lose a third of her weight. Weaning occurs abruptly and once she stops nursing she is ready to mate and it is at this time that the Beach Master is the most active. The pup is very vulnerable in the early days and even after weaning stays on land for 8-10 weeks, learning to swim and dive for its own food. It triples its weight in the time it is nursing. Some pups are abandoned or wander away from the mother and then fall prey to birds like sheathbills, petrels and skuas that are looking for a quick morsel. However, once they wean successfully and are able to swim and procure their own food, they become much more capable of survival. These young pups are called weaners.
This pup is only a few days old. He appears to have been abandoned or has wandered off from the protection of his mother. His right eye has been pecked off by this or another bird. The Southern Giant Petrel is stalking him.
The pup tries to fight back but is too weak. The petrel is simply watching.
The bird will not give up easily. He can sense an advantage and is persistent.
Two sheathbills sit atop the carcass of a pup
It does not have to be a tragedy. These weaners are very happy to play with each other.
Pups are very curious and not afraid to come close to humans! In this case I was sitting some distance away and this pup gradually inched closer to me till I could see my own reflection in its eyes!
They will also roll around and play in the sand by themselves.
Evidence of their land origins. The flipper is very much like a shortened arm, with five finger-like appendages.
All the pictures above were taken on the South Georgia Islands, which harbor the largest Southern elephant seal colonies on the planet.
Another tale from the wild side!