Cornforth Images

Southern Elephant Seal

Elephant seals are large, oceangoing mammals in the genus Mirounga, in the earless seal Phocidae family. There are two species: the northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris) and the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina). Both were hunted to the brink of extinction by the end of the nineteenth century, but numbers have since recovered. The northern elephant seal, somewhat smaller than its southern relative, ranges over the Pacific coast of the USA, Canada, and Mexico. The southern elephant seal is found in the southern hemisphere on islands such as South Georgia, Macquarie Island, and on the coasts of New Zealand, South Africa, and Argentina in the Peninsula ValdŽs, which is the fourth largest elephant seal colony in the world.

Elephant seals take their name from the large proboscis of the adult males (bulls) which resembles an elephant’s trunk. The bull’s proboscis is used in producing extraordinarily loud roaring noises, especially during the mating season. More importantly, the nose acts as a sort of rebreather, filled with cavities designed to reabsorb moisture from their exhalations. This is important during the mating season when the male seals rarely leave the beach to feed, and therefore must conserve body moisture, as they have no incoming source of water. Bulls of both the northern elephant seal and the southern elephant seal reach a length of 16ft (5m) and a weight of 6,000lbs (3,000kg), and are much larger than the cows, which typically measure about 10ft (3m) and 2,000lbs (900 kg).

Elephant seals spend up to 80% of their lives in the ocean. They can hold their breath for over 80 minutes, which is longer than any other non-cetacean (whale) mammal. Furthermore, elephant seals possess the ability to dive to 6,000ft (2,000m) beneath the ocean’s surface. The average depth of their dives is about (300-600m), typically for around 20 minutes for females and 60 minutes for males, as they search for their favorite foods, which are skates, rays, squid, octopuses, eels, and small sharks. Their stomachs also often contain gastroliths. While excellent swimmers, they are even more surprising on land, where they have a higher velocity than the average human when moving over sand dunes.The deepest recorded dive of an elephant seal is 5,217ft (1,581m) by a male in 1989-the deepest recorded dive by any air-breathing vertebrate.

The best location to photograph elephant seals in North America is the Pedras Blancas colony on the south end of the Big Sur Coastin California.
Click on the following links to view images of the California Sea Lion, Northern Fur Seal, Steller Sea Lion, Guadalupe Fur Seal, Harbor Seal, Sea Otter, and Walrus, or return to the Pinnipeds gallery.

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