Bureau of Land Management, Dept. of the Interior

ANIMALS IN SEA HISTORY

Northern Elephant Seal

Scientific Name:
Mirounga angustirostris
Lifespan:
Northern elephant seals typically live for around 9 years.
Males have a thick calloused "chest shield for fighting other males.
 

Northern Elephant Sal

By Richard J. King

portrait

Charles M. Scammon (1825–1911). Photo courtesy of Scientist Overland Monthly, Publ. 1902, P.D.

Charles Scammon, a rare combination of naturalist, artist, ship captain, and commercial hunter, was born in Maine in 1825. As a young man, he sailed to California, likely for the Gold Rush, but he must not have had much success with this—or at least he missed life at sea—because on 1 April 1852, in command of a little brig named the Mary Helen, he wrote that he steered out of San Francisco Bay with his crew, bound for “elephanting.”

Elephanting? Was this an April Fool’s joke?

Captain Scammon was sailing southwards along the coast looking for elephant seals, also known as “sea elephants,” or marinos elefantes to the early Spanish colonists. Elephant seals are the largest of all fin-footed mammals, bigger than sea lions and even walruses. There are two species.

The northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris), which Scammon was after, is found only in the eastern North Pacific, migrating and feeding as far north as the Aleutian Islands. The southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) has a much wider range, swimming and breeding throughout the Southern Ocean and the edges of Antarctica.

An adult male northern elephant seal can weigh three to five times more than a female—as heavy as a mini-van. The elephant part of their name comes from their trunk-like nose, found only on the bulls. This profound proboscis can grow as long as two feet, signaling to females their fitness as a potential mate. The nose seems to accentuate their bellowing roars, and it inflates when two bulls are competing for territory on the beach—although as they slam and bite at each other’s barrel chests, their noses are mostly flopped out of the way.

Two male seals arguingIn the 1850s, Scammon and his crew anchored off the coastal islands of California and Baja California, where elephant seals were known to haul out on the beach to molt, mate, and give birth. Female sea elephants come ashore to give birth to a single pup, feeding them intensely with their rich milk as they starve themselves for about a month, devoted to tripling their babies’ weight.

At this stage, the “weaners,” as biologists call them, are then left on their own to learn how to swim and hunt as their inexhaustible mothers mate again and then go back out to sea for the rest of the year with only a one month break ashore to molt. They swim thousands of miles in the open North Pacific.

Illustration

Charles Scammon’s illustration of the “sea elephant” from his book, The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America. Courtesy of Linda Hall Library.

Scammon and his crew slaughtered the seals on the beaches—males, females, and young. The men then rendered oil from the blubber by boiling it, the same way as was done in the 1800s with whales. At the time, elephant seal oil was considered an exceptional lubricant for machinery, even more valuable than whale oil. Scammon and his crew sailed back to San Francisco with 350 barrels of the precious oil, having killed about 100 or 200 elephant seals.

Up to 10,000 seals

Up to 10,000 elephant seals return to breed, give birth, and molt their skin on the beach at Point Año Nuevo in central California. Photo by Sophia Wittig.

A quarter century later, after his career as a whaleman and Coast Guard officer, Charles Scammon wrote and illustrated a little-known yet extraordinary book about his travels and hunting at sea. Scammon recognized the rapid decline of elephant seals, writing in 1874: “Owing to the continual pursuit of the animals, they have become nearly if not quite extinct on the California coast, or the few remaining have fled to some unknown point for security.”

After surviving over 10,000 years living beside Native peoples, who likely hunted them in some regions, the northern elephant seal was nearly extinguished by American hunters in less than a century. After a few isolated sightings by hunters and naturalists, in 1911 a devoted expedition found about 150 of these seals breeding on a desolate beach of Isla Guadalupe off Baja.

Anatomy

migration map

Map showing the breeding grounds and range of the Northern Elephant Seal.

Minden Pictures

A young female swims along the kelp beds off Cedros Island, off the coast of Baja California. Claudion Contreras / NPL / Minden Pictures

In 1922 the Mexican government enacted conservation laws for the northern elephant seal. The United States followed, and now, after the addition of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 and other changes in North American policies, demands, and attitudes, northern elephant seals have had the space to rebuild healthy populations.

Today, they visit about 25 pupping colonies from Mexico all the way up to British Columbia. They even occupy areas where there is no historical record of seals there, such as at Point Año Nuevo at the northern edge of Monterey Bay, a little peninsula that Scammon would have sailed right past in the 1800s and not seen a single elephant seal.

Today, especially in the winter, you can visit Año Nuevo State Park and watch 100s of elephant seals molt, mate, nurse, fight, and sunbathe. You can hear the croaks and bellows of the adults and the screeches of the young, while ravens and gulls hang around for scraps and great white sharks lurk just offshore. Biologists estimate that more than 210,000 northern elephant seals are living in the North Pacific today, and their numbers are increasing each year. According to expert Mark Hindell, this is “one of the most remarkable population recoveries of any mammal.”

For previous Animals in “Sea History,” or the book Ocean Bestiary: Meeting Marine Life from Abalone to Orca to Zooplankton, which is a revised collection of over fifteen years of this column!

“Sea History for Kids” is sponsored by the Henry L. & Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation.

Did You Know?

Einstein On Sailboat Billard Smoke Pipe

Albert Einstein loved to sail and he sailed his whole life.

Renowned as one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of all time, by most accounts Einstein was also a terrible sailor! Making a boat go in a particular direction is a very interesting bit of science, so you wouldn’t think he would have had any trouble with it—but you’d be wrong.

What’s the secret to sailing any place you want to go, no matter which way the wind is blowing?

Read more at Albert Einstein, Sailor