The snout of a Southern Elephant Seal U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Image Source
Elephant seals are big, really big! Adult males can grow as large as 21 feet long and weigh over 8,000 lbs., making them the largest seal species on the planet. It makes sense that such a large animal is named the elephant seal, right? Well, the elephant seal was actually named for its inflatable trunk-like snout rather than its massive size.
There are two different species of elephant seal: the northern elephant seal, which inhabits the California and Pacific Northwest coastline, and the southern elephant seal, which breeds on Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands. Of the 600,000 southern elephant seals alive today, over half spend September through November mating on the shores of South Georgia Island. After 11 months of pregnancy, females spend these three months giving birth and weaning their pup.
Neither males nor females feed during the 60-90 day breeding season, and as a result they lose up to 40% of their body weight. Females lose up to 17 lbs. a day, while males can lose over 25 lbs. a day! Elephant seals return to shore during January and February to molt their fur coats. Just like their breeding season behavior, elephant seals do not feed while they molt.
Besides breeding and molting season, elephant seals spend most of their lives in the sea. More specifically, they spend most of their lives underwater. Elephant seals hunt primarily squid and fish by diving beneath the ocean surface. While hunting, they typically spend about 20 minutes at depths of 600-1,200 feet. After each dive, elephant seals spend two or three minutes catching their breath on the surface before diving again. They have been known to hold their breath for up to two hours while diving 5,000 feet deep! In fact, besides dolphins, porpoises and whales (the Cetacea order), elephant seals can hold their breath longer than any other mammal.
Seal oil merchants nearly hunted elephant seals to extinction during the 19th century. The worldwide population rebounded after careful protection, but today elephant seals are still at risk. Overfishing in the seals’ hunting grounds has shrunk nearly every elephant seal colony except the South Georgian colony.
Southern Elephant Seal in South Georgia Butterfly voyages – Serge Ouachée Image Source