Southern Elephant Seals

by Dr. Wayne Lynch
December 4, 2017

Elephant seal  by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

A large bull comes ashore to establish a territory

The southern elephant (Mirounga leonina) seal will never win a beauty contest. Even so, I’ve always had a soft spot for these floppy-nosed, bellowing heavyweights and last month in the Falkland Islands I had a chance to observe them once again. The elephant seal is the largest seal in the world with bulls growing up to six metres long and weighing up to 5000 kilograms – 6-7x larger than the largest polar bear or coastal brown bear. Southern “eles”, as researchers affectionately refer to them, occur in the most southern latitudes of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Bull Elephant seal by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

A large bull bellows to advertise his size and health

Elephant Seal by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

A “beachmaster” growls at a rival

The gigantic seals spend over 80% of their lives at sea and most of that time is spent underwater. Typically, an elephant seal rests at the surface for just 4 minutes out of every hour and spends most of its time at depth, spirally slowly to the ocean floor like a leaf falling from an oak tree, perhaps half of its brain sleeping briefly as it descends. Elephant seals dive deeper than most whales and can hold their breath longer, up to 100 minutes. At the bottom of a dive, some of which reach depths greater than 2000 metres, the seals hunt for 8-10 minutes searching mainly for squid that they detect in the blackness from pressure waves given off by their swimming prey. Afterwards, a diving seal slowly ascends to the surface for a few rapid breathes before submerging once again. They repeat this diving sequence day after day for months at a time without a break.

Two younger bulls  Elephant Seals by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

Two younger bulls fight for dominance

Elephant Seal by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

A younger bull flees in fear from a “beachmaster”

Large bull Elephant Seal by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

A “beachmaster” mates with a female in his harem

Bull Elephant seal mating by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

A blubbery embrace from a “beachmaster”, six times larger than the female

Elephant seal pub born by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

A 45-kilogram seal pup is born

Mother elephant seal imprints a newborn pup by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

A mother seal imprints on the voice and smell of her newborn pup

An annoyed bull being is harassed by tussock birds  by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

An annoyed bull being is harassed by tussock birds picking at painful scabs on his neck

Southern elephant seals come ashore to breed from September to November. The dominant bulls, called “beachmasters”, typically 9-11 years of age, often acquire mating rights after vicious battles with rival males. Bulls may also settle confrontations by simply bellowing, their vocalizations carrying honest information about a bull’s size and age that challengers can use to assess each other. In the end, 90% of mature bulls never breed in their lifetime but those that are successful may mate with more than 100 females. Italian researchers recorded a bull in the Falklands who was a “beachmaster” for six successive years and sired 576 pups.

Three inquisitive elephant seal pups by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

Three inquisitive pups shuffle over to the photographer

Females give birth to a single pup and wean it after just 23 days. Two to three days before the end of the nursing period the mother comes into heat and mates with the nearest beachmaster before abandoning her pup and disappearing out to sea to feed.

Happy Holiday Greetings Elephant Seal pups by Dr. Wayne Lynch ©

Authors Biography & Contact Information

Portrait of Robert BerdanBio: Dr. Lynch is a popular guest lecturer and an award-winning science writer. His books cover a wide range of subjects, including: the biology and behaviour of owls, penguins and northern bears; arctic, boreal and grassland ecology; and the lives of prairie birds and mountain wildlife. He is a fellow of the internationally recognized Explorers Club - a select group of scientists, eminent explorers and distinguished persons, noteworthy for their contributions to world knowledge and exploration. He is also an elected Fellow of the prestigious Arctic Institute of North America.



Dr. Wayne Lynch 
3779 Springbank Drive S. W.
Calgary, AB, T3H J5


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