Picture an elephant crossed with a seal and add in a little “District 9” alien. The result: the male northern elephant seal or Mirounga angustirostris.
The elephant part of the description helps convey the sheer mass of the male elephant seal, plus the shape of its nose. According to the book Elephant Seals by Carole and Phil Adams, the males average 14 to 16 feet in length and weigh 3,000 to 5,000 pounds!
This blubbery bulk is accented by a huge hanging nose reminiscent of an elephant’s trunk, but not as long. The massive nose is called the proboscis and of course fulfills the standard role of any nose, breathing. But the hanging nose also plays an interesting secondary role as a “sexual characteristic,” as the book describes. This makes sense in a way since the nose is very phallic looking in its own right. But more on sex later.
The seal part of the description is obvious since the elephant seal sports flippers but no ears, which places elephant seals in the scientific family Phocidae. The earless seals are considered to be true seals while animals like the sea lion are not thanks to their little ear flaps.
And what does combining an elephant with a seal create…an alien. Seriously, male elephant seals have an extraterrestrial quality that to me is most similar to the aliens featured in the movie “District 9.” Like the male elephant seal, the “District 9” aliens have strange tentacle like appendages for a nose and distinct eyes.
The eyes of the elephant seal are truly one of its most impressive features. Large round brown-black glossy liquid pools stare with an all seeing look. These eyes are specially adapted to allow elephant seals to see underwater at great depths where the ocean is shrouded in darkness. Here they defy typical lifestyle boundaries to find food.
“While at sea, elephant seals dive almost continuously, rarely resting at the surface. Typically they will dive to depths of 1,000 to 2,000 feet, though dives of over 5,000 feet have been recorded.” Authors Carole and Phil Adams go on to explain that elephant seals only surface for two to three minutes before heading back for the deep again. “They are underwater 90% of the time.”
Such impressive diving abilities place elephant seals just behind the sperm whale when it comes to deep diving. Elephant seals spend their time at sea hunting alone, and while this way of life works for them it does seem a bit extreme. But this lonely existence may really just be an elephant seal’s attempt to enjoy some peace and quiet after going through the annual chaotic mating event.
After months of eating and bulking up, male elephant seals start hauling out on beaches in November to begin sparring for the best locations along the sand to set up house for luring the ladies. Males establish dominance by showing off their studly girth and large noses, making threateningly loud and raspy vocalizations and fighting close-combat style when necessary. Many smaller males are smart enough not to even bother trying. But large males really itching to mate can end up fighting and slamming into each other and the battle gets bloody with teeth slicing flesh along the chest and neck. Remember we are talking about 3,000 to 5,000 pound animals going after each other, it’s quite a sight.
Winners, more accurately referred to as dominant bulls, sport many battle wounds once they have fought off other males and constantly patrol their area of beach while waiting for females to arrive, which begins in December and continues through January.
Females are actually quite normal looking compared to males since they do not have crazy hanging noses. Instead, they have shapely noses accented by the same dark eyes set within small heads that sit at one end of giant sausage shaped bodies. Females are much smaller than males averaging 900 to 1,800 pounds and reaching 9 to 12 feet in length. The size difference between males and females takes sexual dimorphism (a fancy name for differences between sexes) to the extreme.
Once females arrive to the beaches they also establish their own hierarchy with older females staking out the best spots near the dominant males. This protects older females from annoying advances from other males still lurking around the beach hoping to get in on the action when the dominant male isn’t looking or is “occupied.” It’s not always easy for a dominant male to watch over every member of a harem that usually contains 25 to 50 females.
Dominant males expect to mate with every member of the harem. What’s the phrase? Set your expectations high and reach for the sky? This strategy seems to work for dominant male elephant seals.
But dominant males have to practice due diligence and be patient because females arrive pregnant and aren’t ready for mating until a month later once they have given birth and weaned their pups. The month after females have given birth is complete chaos on the beach. Dominant males police the harems while females nurse their young and pups just hope to survive without being crushed by lurking adult males hoping to make a run on an unsuspecting female.
One of the best places to watch all this activity is at Peidras Blancas, just north of Cambria. The hardest thing to convey about the scene is the noise. Males trumpeting, females squawking and pups bleating constantly, the entire live drama plays out right before your eyes and is completely mesmerizing. What felt like only 20 minutes turned out to be three hours after checking my watch several times thinking I was reading it wrong.
After a month of nursing, females ditch the pups, mate with their chosen dominant male and then head out to sea again. By this time males and females have run through their blubber energy reserves and it’s time to start bulking up again out on the open sea. Pups (aka weaners) are left to fend for themselves on the beach and stay for another two months teaching themselves to swim and dive.
Mating season is over, but there are still plenty of opportunities left to see elephant seals. During April weaners are still hanging around and females and juveniles return to the beach for the annual molt. Aptly described by the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, “seals all have an unusual annual molt, which entails the shedding of epidermal tissue in addition to the hair.” This is a dramatic process that requires another month out of the water. Adult males start returning to molt in June.
For more information on when to see the elephant seals visit the Friends of the Elephant Seal website at www.elephantseal.org. It’s definitely worth a trip to Cambria because it’s not every day that you get to see an alien visiting our shores.