True Facts about the Northern Elephant Seal

Quick! What’s ginormous, seemingly always yelling, reeks of fish, and weighs thousands of pounds?

Don’t know the answer?

Why, it’s an elephant seal, of course!

This past weekend, a couple of fellow National Park Service coworkers and I got together to go tide-pooling along one of the beaches in Point Reyes. We saw all kinds of amazing animals: sea anemones, mussels, crabs, sculpins, and even elephant seals.

Although I consider myself to be a “fish person”, I will readily admit that seeing an elephant seal in-person has definitely been near the top of my bucketlist for the past five years or so. You can imagine my excitement when I finally got to set my eyes on not just one, but nearly a dozen northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris)! (Call me crazy, but there’s just something so appealing to me about seeing their obnoxiously-loud, beautifully-ugly, slug-like, not-so-little bodies firsthand.)

So in honor of this momentous occasion – and to hopefully sway any of you out there that think that these guys are too ugly to love – I put together some fun facts about northern elephant seals and some tips and tricks on how to view them yourself!

A northern elephant seal in Point Reyes National Seashore; photo taken through binoculars by Tara Samuels

FUN FACTS ABOUT THE NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL

  • There are 2 known species of elephant seals in the world today: northern elephant seals (like the ones I saw here in Point Reyes National Seashore) and southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina). Northern elephant seals can be found along the Pacific coast of Mexico, the United States, and Canada; whereas southern elephant seals are found near Antarctica!
  • These seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800’s, as people used their blubber as a source of oil. However, I’m happy to share that since the 20th century, the population numbers have been steadily increasing!
  • Northern elephant seals are the 2nd largest pinniped*, with southern elephant seals being the largest. (*“Pinniped” is the scientific group name for seals and walruses.)
  • Both northern and southern elephant seals are highly sexually dimorphic, with males being much larger in size than females. Males also have longer canines and develop the signature “elephant” nose at maturity! For northern elephant seals, adult females average 650kg (1,400lbs) and 2.5m (8ft) in length, and males 1,800kg (4,000lbs) and 3.8m (12.5ft)! They’re huge!
  • Elephant seals are carnivorous, consuming a variety of animals including squid and fishes!
  • To hunt for food, this species has been known to dive up to 1,500m (~4,900ft) in depth, remaining underwater for up to 2 hours at a time!!!
  • Throughout the year, these animals have been known to swim over 20,000km (~12,400mi)! This is nearly equivalent to swimming halfway around the globe.
  • Elephant seals are one of two pinnipeds (the other being the Hawaiian Monk Seal), that undergo an annual catastrophic molting. Unlike other seals who just shed their fur, these guys shed their fur and their first layer of skin – nearly all at once! This process is – understandably – very energetically taxing for them, so rather than this take place in the water, they come up to beaches to rest and molt on land.
  • The lifespan of northern elephant seals is approximately 10 years!
  • This species is highly polygynous, with one male gathering harems of sometimes hundreds of females! Males will often compete for territory and mates – these battles are often pretty gnarly, leaving one or both individuals injured.

A northern elephant seal posing for a picture; photo by Tara Samuels

WHERE CAN I SEE ELEPHANT SEALS?

Now, you might be thinking to yourself “These guys are so cool! Where can I go to see an elephant seal??” If you’re in the Point Reyes National Seashore area, then the answer is “not far”! While elephant seals only congregate on beaches during certain times of year (e.g. for pupping, molting, etc.), there are plenty of viewing areas around the park for when they’re here! Before you go, however, make sure to read up on what to expect and how to safely view these animals in the wild.

For now, here are some of my tips for viewing elephant seals…

A northern elephant seal viewed through binoculars in Point Reyes National Seashore; photo by Tara Samuels

TIPS FOR SAFE VIEWING

  • It should go without saying, but always, always keep your distance from wildlife. Not only are elephant seals protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but these guys are faster than they look and can be very territorial! The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recommends staying at least 100ft away from these seals at all times.
  • If you want a closer look at the seals, don’t walk closer – bring binoculars!
  • Never bring your dog with you when you go to look at elephant seals. Although your dog might be well-behaved and not bark nor try to run towards the seals, the seals might perceive you (and your dog) as a threat. I guarantee that these seals vastly outweigh both you and your dog, so you don’t ever want to be in a position where you’ve accidentally startled or threatened one of them.
  • Always obey beach closures and restrictions – they’re put in place to protect you and the seals.

 

For more information on elephant seals, check out:

Share:
Written by Katlyn Fuentes
Katlyn is an Aquatic and Fishery Sciences major and Anthropology minor at the University of Washington in Seattle. This summer she will be working as a Mosaics in Science intern with the National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, assisting with the ongoing San Francisco Area Network Coho and Steelhead Monitoring Program. After completing this internship and graduating with her B.S., she plans on pursuing a career in conservation and management of natural resources.