Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Friday, January 25, 2002

Elephant seals take stage
in real-life ‘Survivor’ show

Last week, an elephant seal made the news by showing up on the Big Island's Kona Coast. This male, about a year old, got everyone's attention because elephant seals don't live in Hawaii. They range along the North American coastline from Alaska to Mexico.

Occasionally, though, storms throw a few seals off course, and they end up far from home. Three have made it to Midway over the years, and in 1989 one was found on a small island near Japan.

It's hard to imagine any seal swimming several thousand miles, but elephant seals are famous survivors. In the early and mid-1800s, sealers killed northern elephant seals until in the 1880s the species was thought to be extinct.

Then, in 1892 people spotted a few on an island off Baja, Calif. -- and killed them. Yes, what people believed were the last northern elephants seals on Earth were killed for scientific collections.

Still, a few seals survived, somewhere, and for a century now, they've been reproducing like mad. Today, depending upon the season, it's easy to see elephant seals regularly along the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

They're hard to miss. Northern males grow to 4,400 pounds, and females to 1,400 pounds. And those are the small ones. The elephant seals of the Southern Hemisphere, which range throughout the southern ocean, are the largest seals in the world. Males grow to 11,000 pounds, females to 1,700 pounds.

Last year, I was lucky enough to see these giants as they lay molting on the island of South Georgia. And did they stink!

Smelling bad, however, is normal for them. During molts, southern elephant seals come ashore, trample fragile plants and create mud wallows. There, they urinate, defecate and shed their skin and fur in large patches. In one of my seal books, the authors write, "With its coating of mud, urine and feces, there are few things dead that smell as bad as a molting elephant seal alive."

But this wallowing isn't all bad. Even though some plants get crushed during the molts, the seals' urine and feces supply the soil with much-needed fertilizer.

Male elephant seals have other features we humans find less than endearing. One is their appearance. At puberty, males grow elongated snouts, which to most of us look ugly. Combine this big, floppy nose with a chest dripping with blood from fighting, and you have an animal that's hard to warm up to.

Besides their unsightly appearance, male elephant seals lumber through crowded rookeries, squashing and killing cute little seal pups. Or so we see on television.

In truth, such trampling is rare. Most pups that die in a crowded colony do so from starvation after getting separated from their mothers. The film clips we see of lost pups in a packed colony crying piteously for their mothers, and mothers calling anxiously for their pups, are sad but common events.

An elephant seal on a Hawaii beach, however, is not a common event. It was a first here and set a record for the furthest south a northern elephant seal has ever been found.

In spite of several cookie-cutter shark bites (normal for seals), the lost seal looked healthy. Workers lured him into a cage and flew him to a Sausa-lito seal facility for a checkup. When ready, the young seal will be turned loose.

My guess is that he'll grow up, develop a snout, fight for territory and father a load of pups. He is, after all, a survivor from a long line of survivors.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears weekly in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at

E-mail to City Desk

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