The mysterious life of elephant seals

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Fri 5 Feb 2016 21:05
54:11.05S 36:42.28W

This time of year the beaches in South Georgia are covered with female elephant seals moulting. They undergo this process every year, shedding their entire coat, patch by patch. During this period, they fast as they cannot swim, and survive on energy reserves stored in their blubber fat. They can live off their stored fat for several months. On 'hot' days they desperately seek ways to keep cool and wallowing in muddy hollows is favourite. Mostly they lie still, occasionally waiving a tail or a flipper, but sometimes, for what seems to us no obvious reason, they set off on a mission. At Ocean Harbour I was watching a large cow, hauled out on the beach at the head of the bay. Suddenly she rolled into action. Off she went, wriggling like a caterpillar down to the water's edge. She passed a mate who gazed on with envy as she slunk into the sea. I thought she had finished moulting and was on her way back out to the ocean but I was wrong. She swam along the shore, submerging for a few minutes and then coming up to breathe, until she reached a rocky spot. She knew exactly where she wanted to go, this was no random exercise. Getting out of the water looked like hard work as she had to crawl over some large boulders. Three wriggles, a rest, a little further, then a lie down. I ceased observing for just a few minutes and when I glanced back, she had disappeared. It is amazing how fast they move. She probably joined one of the groups of elephant seals lolling in the mud a little way up the slope in the tussock grass.

Shedding their skin, patch by patch

We have never seen an elephant seal out at sea. Away from the shore, these creatures are very shy of boats and when they surface to breathe, they never stay long. Elephant seals spend most of their time submerged and by tracking individuals using censors stuck to their fur, researchers have found out that they can dive to depths of 1,800m for up to two hours.

Other than for moulting, the only time they come ashore is for breeding, and again they fast. The males land end of August and fight ferociously for beach space. They use their 'trunks' to amplify their roars when battling with adversaries. A successful male may have a harem of several hundred females. The females arrive in September and give birth within days. They feed their pups for three weeks using their own body reserves and shrink noticeably. They then mate and immediately return to sea abandoning their young on the beaches where these will remain for four to eight weeks without food. Eventually the weaners set off themselves, between late November and early January and travel thousands of kilometres to find food.

Southern elephant seals are the largest of all seals.The females can reach 3.8m and the males up to 6.5m long and weigh 5 tonnes. South Georgia is visited by 400,000 elephant seals, 74% of the total global population.

The Husvik Hollow

Happiness is ...

… but heavenly bliss is even better.

The sail from Grytviken to Husvik was boisterous with the wind strength fluctuating between 15 and 40 knots. In these conditions, it is difficult to judge how much sail to set and hanging on to the tiller in the strong gusts, while concentrating on the course to steer is wearing. The wind eased as we got further into the bay and the weather was nearly pleasant by the time we dropped anchor  in Husvik Harbour. We were surprised to see Windora and Kestrel, also parked in the bay, as we didn't expect to pass them until further up the coast. 

Firmly anchored to the bottom, we relaxed over a cup of tea. Suddenly a sea monster erupted out of the water, just a foot away from Caramor, up and up it came until it was towering over the side and peering down at us in the cockpit. It disappeared for a few minutes, only to reappear in exactly the same spot. The reptilian head was the give away: a leopard seal, ... a hungry leopard seal. They eat fish, penguins and baby seals. We now know how it feels to be a penguin stranded on an ice floe, surrounded by leopard seals or killer whales. 

Placid elephant seals and playful (if aggressive) fur seals had not prepared us for the 'monster of Husvik'. The size of a female elephant seal but with the agility of a fur seal, our leopard was a female. The males are smaller. This particular one is attracted to engines and will follow dinghies with outboards or motoring yachts. 

It wasn't long before three men in a boat rowed over. Phil, Bernie and Gabor had popped over to say hello.


Information about elephant seals taken from Martin Biuw's section in A Visitor's Guide to South Georgia. Poncet, S. & Crosbie, K., Princeton. 2005.