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Elephant Seals

by Kate Hofmann

After months in the sea, these elephant seal mates cuddle peacefully on the sand. But beach life isn’t always so calm and quiet! Get the rest of the deal on these seals.

For most of their lives, northern elephant seals swim at sea, far from any land. But each winter, the seals haul out onto beaches along the coast of California and Mexico. Great piles of seals cover the sand. Their roars, snorts, grunts, and squawks fill the air.

 Elephant Seals, July 2009 Ranger Rick magazine

Are the seals here just to snooze and sunbathe? Nope! This is the time for pups to be born and grownups to mate.

The males, called bulls, arrive first. They’re HUGE. A really big one can be around 16 feet long and weigh as much as 4,000 pounds—that’s longer and heavier than most cars!

Jumbo size is just one reason these creatures are called elephant seals. To guess the other reason, take a look at that extra-large
nose. Only the full-grown males have these “trunks.” The big snouts act as echo chambers, making the bulls’ roars extra loud. With those
roars, the bulls challenge each other to fights. They face off, rear up, slam their chests together, and slash with their teeth. Why? To decide who’s “boss.” Winners get the chance to mate with females that will soon be coming ashore.

Big Babies

The females, called cows, are quite a bit smaller than the males, each maxing out at around 1,300 pounds. When the cows arrive on the beach, they are pregnant from last year’s mating. Soon each gives birth to a pup. Mom sniffs her pup to learn its scent and listens to
its cries to learn its voice. And she roars at the baby so it can
learn her voice. Strange welcome, huh? But now the mother and baby can find each other if they get separated in the crowded colony.

Just how big are these babies? Each newborn weighs around 75 pounds — but not for long. The pups get right to work drinking their mothers’ milk. The milk is super-rich and full of fat. In less than a month, a pup can balloon to 300 pounds, putting on a bulky layer of blubber. That’s a good thing: The pups will need all that fat for what comes next.

Elephant Seals, July 2009 Ranger Rick magazine

Pups on Their Own

As the pups get fatter, their moms get thinner. The grownup seals don’t eat at all while they’re on the beach. So once the pups become very plump, their moms go back to sea for their first meal in more than a month. Before the cows leave, the “boss” bulls mate with them. Soon the bosses, and all the other bulls, leave the beach as well. They are hungry, too — they haven’t eaten for up to 100 days! The pups, still on land, are on their own now. They’re called weaners, because they have been weaned (have stopped drinking their mothers’ milk). The pups’ bodies use the energy stored in their blubber for food. They sleep a lot. They also start practicing their swimming, and the young males practice fighting.

Out to Sea

After more than two months without food, the youngsters head to sea: their true home. Elephant seals are amazing swimmers and divers. They travel thousands of miles in search of food, diving all day and night to catch squid and bottom-dwelling fish. Most of the time a dive lasts 15 or 20 minutes, but once in a while it can be as long as an hour. And the seals dive deep — sometimes nearly a mile below the surface!

Elephant Seals, July 2009 Ranger Rick magazine

Ashore Again

In summer, the seals return again to the same beach — this time to molt. They lose all their fur and grow new coats. For protection from the sun, they sometimes flip sand over themselves. But before long, they’ll be back at sea, doing what elephant seals do best!

Signed and Sealed

You can visit a northern elephant seal colony at places such as Año Nuevo State Natural Reser ve and Piedras Blancas in California. If you go, you may be lucky enough to see a lot of seals. But it wasn’t always that way. Over a hundred years ago, hunters killed elephant seals for their blubber — so many seals that people believed they were extinct.

It turned out that a small group survived off the coast of Mexico. Both Mexico and the United States made laws to stop hunting and to protect the beaches where the seals came ashore. The small group grew, and many seals moved northward to California. Scientists believe there are around 170,000 northern elephant seals today. Now that’s a success story! 

This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Ranger Rick magazine. Download the full PDF of the Back to the Beach article about elephant seals.


Elephant Seals as Heroes

Southern Elephant Seals Are Doing Something Awesome!

They're helping scientists discover more about the seas of Antarctica. Here's how it all works:

  • First, the scientists glue packets of mini-computers to the seals' backs.
  • Then, as the seals dive—as deep as 1,000 feet--beneath the Antarctic seas, the computers record information about the surrounding water—and send it back to the scientists.
  • For instance, the computers measure how deep the seals dive, and the salt content and temperature of the water around them.
  • The seals don't seem to mind "wearing" the packets. Besides, these fall off when the seals molt each year. 
     Elephant Seal photo
    Photo: © Fred Sorenson / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    Species: Elephant Seal

What scientists have found out from the seals:

  • The southern oceans seem to be warming faster than seas elsewhere.
  • Scientists are trying to figure out why and what to do about it.

Wahoo! for the seals:

  • Says one scientist, "It would take years and millions and millions of dollars for a research ship to do what the seals are doing.
  • Another expert adds, "The seals have made it possible for us to observe large areas of the ocean under the sea ice for the first time."

(This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.)

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