What is the big deal about the elephant seal?

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Park by K. Cooke.

By Kathryn Cooke, Pollution Prevention Specialist, San Mateo County Environmental Health

I first became fascinated with elephant seals during an ecology class in college. The class required students to spend the entire semester researching and then writing a big report on one topic. With most of the more interesting topics gone by the time the list reached me, I took a gamble and committed myself to researching an unknown animal to me: the elephant seal. When I look back, I remember thinking, how exciting can this animal really be?

As I started diving into the research and interviewing the scientists who studied them, my interest for the species quickly grew. When I finally took the guided tour at Año Nuevo State Park in San Mateo County my passion and fascination for them became apparent as my paper slowly came together.

So what makes the elephant seal so exciting? For one thing, I found out they were declared extinct not just once, but three times! Any species that is able to survive in the face of all human and environmental odds is an animal that deserves to be respected and recognized for their adversity!

Elephant seals also lead interesting lives. They spend eight months straight at sea diving down to ocean depths of 5,000 feet, resurfacing for air every couple of hours, always watching for sharks who view them as a tasty steak dinner, or giant squids who just don’t like them. When they’re not foraging for food, they’ll rest by taking one to two hour naps. All the food the elephant seals eat provides them with the energy needed to travel up to San Mateo County’s coastline.

Why do elephant seals come to our coastline every year? They come to shore to mate, give birth, battle, relax when they can, and for the entire time they are here, they are fasting. Female elephant seals give birth to “Weaners” that weigh up to 75 pounds and can grow up to 600 pounds. While the females are worrying about finding the right spot to give birth and care for their pups, male elephant seals have a very different agenda. Most males spend their time trying to mate with female elephant seals and find themselves getting chased off by the larger alpha males who keep constant guard over their “harem” of females. When two large male elephant seals do decide to meet in battle for a harem it is known as one of the bloodiest around.

As I look back on that day in ecology class, I am thankful I had the opportunity to find out how interesting and remarkable these animals are. I encourage you to share my fascination of the elephant seal by learning more about at them or booking a tour at Año Nuevo Park.

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