The week before South Africa was recently put on lockdown, an unexpected arrival appeared in the waters around the Cape Peninsula…
Images first emerged of what appeared to be a lone elephant seal at the famous V & A Waterfront in Cape Town during the evening of 19th March 2020. The elephant seal had made its way into the harbour and was easily spotted by onlookers enjoying the autumn evening. Floating upright with its head out of the water, it was recognised as an elephant seal – an uncommon visitor to our shores.
Whilst out on a Seal Snorkeling trip the next day, with guests back on board after being immersed in the world of the Cape fur seal pups, the radio crackled…The Animal Ocean Skipper answered the call, and with a confused look on his face listened in to what was coming through. The guide and manager on board signalled to each other as they strained to hear what Rob was hearing – could it be that Buffel was back…?
Rob finished the radio call and then alerted the staff and bemused Seal Snorkeling guests that an elephant seal had been spotted by another boat operator, quite close inshore at the main Hout Bay beach. Once everyone had finished their hot chocolate the boat started making its way back to shore, with all on board straining to see what the fuss was about at the beach. Getting closer, a large shape loomed above the water mark…it was an elephant seal!
With more reports and images being sent in as the day continued, it appeared that the elephant seal was first seen swimming amongst the breakers near Mariners Wharf at the beach, before coming ashore, to the wonder of beach walkers and dogs alike! Unfortunately not everyone respected the animals personal space, and the new arrival was harassed by a member of the public.
On closer inspection it was revealed that this was not the well-known Buffel, but rather a different elephant seal male. Based on its size and the development of the nose, as well as scaring across the body, this southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) male is most likely around 7 years old. The scars indicate that this seal would have challenged another male for mating territory, with this behaviour usually starting around 6 or 7 years old. An interesting thing to note are the barnacles seen on the body of the seal, which are known as rabbit ear barnacles (Conchoderma auritum) – soft shelled barnacles that attach to free range swimming animals. Rabbit ear barnacles most often attach to fast moving animals as larvae, which allows them to filter feed as the animal swims (scientific paper here).
There are 2 species of elephant seal: northern and southern elephant seals, with the closest colony to South Africa being a southern elephant seal colony on Marion Island, almost 2000 kilometres southeast of Cape Town. Whilst it is difficult to differentiate between sexes of young elephant seals, as they age it becomes easily apparent with the females retaining a very flat shaped face, and the males developing an easily recognisable nose (much like an elephant’s trunk, which is why they are called elephant seals). Elephant seals come ashore to breed in a number of sub-Antarctic locations across the south Atlantic and south Indian oceans. They spend most of the year out in the open ocean hunting, before returning to their breeding grounds to give birth and mate. This usually happens during the months of August and September, with the large males most often coming ashore first to claim terrestrial mating territory. The females will then come ashore and give birth, having carried their pups for the year. As soon as they have given birth the males will start mating with multiple females in the area that they claim, patrol and defend from other males (called harems). It is during this time that the pups will also be suckling for 3 weeks, putting on weight and needing to stay out of the way of the males in the area (they might get squashed!) Males also need to stop competitors from coming ashore onto their section of beach and making attempts at mating with the females. Battle scars indicate conflict with other males over mating territory, as seen on the elephant seal that arrived recently in Hout Bay.
After the breeding season the elephant seals need to replenish their body condition, having spent 2-3 months ashore without feeding. Body moisture is also lost during this period, although the proboscis of the males serves as a sort of rebreather, allowing them to retain moisture that is exhaled. They will return to the ocean to feed, before coming ashore again in time to moult (this does not necessarily have to be at a breeding colony, which is why we sometimes have these visitors to our shores during the months of January and February). During moulting time elephant seals have to remain ashore for up to 4 weeks, as their pelts are not waterproof. The previous year’s outer layer of fur and skin is shed, with new regrowth appearing as the weeks wear on.
Whilst we have not been able to visit the beach to check on his whereabouts, social media reports noted that the elephant seal had departed a few days after he was first spotted in Hout Bay. Such a short stay indicates that he had not come ashore to moult, but merely passed by to say hello!
Elephant seal facts:
- Can dive up to 1500m deep, but this is very intensive on their bodies and high in energy expenditure (note the bloodshot eyes often seen in images, with broken capillaries). Deepest recorded dive is over 2000m!
- Forage for food in the dark
- Because of the pressures exerted on their bodies in foraging efforts, elephant seals have relatively short lifespans, with females living to about 21 and males to only around 13 years of age
- Eat mostly large fish, skates, rays, octopus, squid, eels and small sharks
- They detect prey using their large whiskers and responding to vibrations from movement in the water column
- Thought to be solitary animals in the ocean – they have not been recorded diving or feeding together
- Females carry one pup at a time
- Males grow to be up to 4000kg in weight and around 5-6 metres long, with females weighing up to 1000kg and coming in at about 3.5 metres at their largest
Written with assistance from Dr Otto Whitehead, who spent a year on Marion Island in 2011/2012.