Robert’s Island, ANTARCTICA — Seeing a single elephant seal is enough to make one stop and pay attention. There it is — 1,500 pounds of round, massive animal, and no one would want to be anywhere too close when he’s on the move.
But at this stop on my cruise aboard the Silver Endeavor, I crested a small hill only to see a dozen or more of the brown blubbery creatures, all crowded together for a little extra warmth as they went through what biologists term “catastrophic molting.”
Each year the seals take a month or so to shed their old, damaged, worn fur for a new coat that will protect them better in their sea tasks, such as diving 1,000 feet below the surface to feast on their favorite meal — squid.
The fur comes apart in big patches, and elephant seals have to go to the beach to go through the process, which would be too cold in the ocean.
Most of the seals here were either female or younger males too small to compete with the mating “beachmasters” on a nearby island. Sometimes they just lie inert on the rocks. But the juvenile males also used their time ashore to stage mock fights, practicing their skills for another year when they had real fights to pick.
A group of elephant seals lying on the rocks. Photo credit: Tom Stieghorst
Unlike fur seals, elephant seals don’t use their flippers too much on land. They get around on their massive bellies with an ungainly, slumping forward motion. Poetic or graceful it is not. In a fight, each seal arches its back to get vertical, baring its teeth and thrusting its chest toward an opposing male.
The seals also vocalize to intimidate their opponent, producing a deep gurgling belch that sounds a bit like a clogged drain coming unblocked.
I couldn’t decide in the end if elephant seals are ugly or beautiful. Those that had most of their fur replaced had a sleek look and their big eyes, nose and whiskers made their faces sympathetic and unthreatening.
But it just feels like most of them could get by on a couple fewer squid.
Antarctica isn’t the only place on earth to see elephant seals, but it is a treat nonetheless because they are not as numerous as the ubiquitous penguins. On a previous, longer cruise to Antarctica I saw the odd leopard seal here and there, but that was about all.
It’s luck of the draw for some categories of wildlife in Antarctica. On this particular cruise, there was an elephant seal bonanza. I was glad that I took the time to walk past the penguins to the marine mammal haul-out at the end of the trail.