Elephant seals in Antarctica are a fantastic sight to behold on any trip to Antarctica and one of the region’s most unique and recognisable species. An Antarctic cruise is an icy safari, with many different species of animals to observe, but this adorable creature is one of our favourites to see. Here are some fun facts about these elephant seals and the environment they inhabit.
We hope you enjoy them as much as we do!
An adult male elephant seal can weigh up to five tonnes and measure up to six and a half metres! Females are smaller and weigh around 7 – 800 kg.
So, whether you see a male or female, these wonderful creatures are huge—be sure to keep your distance!
The gestation period for a female Elephant seal is 9 months. However, they have delayed implantation, which is why babies are born after 12 months even though the pregnancy itself does last for 9.
Delayed implantation also occurs in some other mammals, including some marsupials, shrews, and rodents.
Elephant seal babies, when born weigh, around 50 kilograms. Within 3 months they will weigh 150kg! Like all kids, they sure grow up fast!
Pups are generally born from September to October when their mothers come ashore at their berthing beaches around the continent.
Like female whales in Antarctica, elephant seals are highly social animals and they love to get together in large groups. This is especially true during the breeding season, when they often form large gatherings that are known as harems. The harems will tend to have large numbers of females and a small number of males.
Elephants seals are among the largest carnivores in the world and they tend to eat squid and fish as the main sources of food in their diet.
However, they’re willing to go to great lengths to get the perfect meal! One of the most fascinating facts about elephant seals is that they have been measured diving up to up to 2000m deep and can hold breath for up to two hours!
Sexual dimorphism is a physical difference between the male and female of a species. Males may be up to ten times the weight of reproductive females, one of the largest contrasts recorded in nature
It’s also been observed that only 2 – 3 % of male elephant seals actually breed, so there’s very fierce competition when mating season rolls around.
Elephant seals can be found across the Antarctic region, but are most prevalent around the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands. They were hunted for their blubber during the sealing days. London alone used 20,000 tonnes of elephant seal oil to light the city a year.
However, the environments these incredible creatures live in is now protected
Due to hunting, it was thought for a time that the Northern elephant seal had become extinct. Luckily, this wasn’t the case!
However, from a small group of animals left, there are now an estimated population of 150,000 which live mainly around the Baja Gulf in Mexico and on the shores of Southern California, USA. These animals have grown from a small group of animals, and do lack genetic diversity, so there are still concerns over the future of these animals.
Although elephant seals might seem large and intimidating, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have any predators in the wild. Their main predator is the orca, and in the northern most part of their range, large sharks. Leopard seals have also been known to attack and kill stray elephant seal young.
If you think elephant seals are neat, wait until you learn these fun facts about penguins!
They are called elephant seals due to a number of reasons, partly because of their size and also partly because of the male snout or trunk that inflates to impress and intimidate rivals when competing with other males for his harem.
The trunk is inflated with air which is inhaled and thus a loud bellowing sound is produced. The depth and volume of the sound is a demonstration to others how powerful he is, and thus so avoids fights with competing males.
Enjoy the majestic elephant seal on a cruise to Antarctica, but keep your distance – despite their size they can move fast on land, and are highly aggressive when protecting their territory and young. Generally they are not afraid of man, however if disturbed while resting, reproducing or marking territory they can be a different proposition. Keep clear as per most wildlife you encounter on your cruise.
Despite once being on the endangered list, due to the protection of the Antarctic treaty, the Southern elephant seal is no longer in any immediate danger. However, over-fishing of Antarctic waters and human activities may in the future see some issues with their native habitat.
Thanks to Dr Mikolaj Golachowski for helping put this together. Dr. Miko was a lecturer on-board our last PinkTarctica Antarctic expedition to the Peninsula and is a leading expert on Elephant seals and their behaviour. Dr. Mikolaj is a native of Poland, and was base commander of the Polish base on the Antarctic Peninsula for several seasons.
He graduated at the Faculty of Biology, University of Warsaw and began working there as a researcher and lecturer of Zoology and Ecology in 1995.
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