Here at Aurora Expeditions, we like our guests to get as close to the action as possible and when there’s the chance to stand metres away from one of Antarctica’s most impressive animals, who can say no?
In this wildlife fact file, we’ll uncover everything you need to know about the elephant seal before giving you the chance to spot this magnificent creature yourself on board the South Georgia & Antarctic Odyssey expedition.
The elephants of the sea
There are two types of elephant seal – northern and southern. The northern elephant seal is found in California while the southern elephant seal lives in sub-Antarctic waters and are the species you may see on our many trips around the region.
The southern elephant seal is the largest species of seal on the planet. Males can weigh between a whopping 1,500 to 3,700 kg (3,300 to 8,200 lb) and span over six metres long (about 20 feet). That’s five times heavier than a grizzly bear! Females are a lot smaller and can weigh anything from 350-900kg (661-1,980 lb).
Although their sheer size is recognisable in itself, the elephant seal takes its name from their trunk-like snout, also known as the proboscis – a feature only males have. The proboscis can grow and inflate up to 50 cm (20 ft) long and is used to attract potential mates and adds to the effectiveness of the bull elephant seal roar.
At birth, the coat of the southern elephant seal is woolly, long and black, which moults from around 10 to 34 days old. Until moulting is finished, the pups can’t go in the water. After this process, their new coat is yellowish-grey which eventually turns dark silvery-grey or brown as they become adults.
Brutal breeding battles
Mating season begins in September, with most seal pups born in October. The southern elephant seal mating season is one of the most violent in the animal kingdom and are often known as ‘breeding battles’. In spring, nearly half a million elephant seals line the shores of South Georgia!
The breeding season of the elephant seal has been heavily documented by countless wildlife channels, including David Attenborough himself who was brave enough to get up close and personal to the ferocious males.
When mating season begins, male southern elephant seals collect a group (harem) of 40 to 50 females which are established and defended as theirs, and only theirs. If another male tries to mate with someone else’s female, a battle of dominance will begin. These fights can turn extremely aggressive with males roaring, biting and rearing up to 2.5 metres tall (8.2 feet). Males have a thicker hide on the neck to prevent injury during these bloody battles.
Here at Aurora Expeditions, you won’t have to worry about coming face to face with testosterone-fuelled males, instead, you’ll get to wander through kelp strewn beaches filled with basking elephant seal pups and adolescents on our In-depth South Georgia and Antarctica tour.
Hunting and holding their breath
Both male and female elephant seals migrate in search of food, such as squid or fish at the edge of the sea ice. Although both genders travel long distances to feed, they both follow different migration routes.
Male southern elephant seals hunt primarily on the Antarctic continental shelf and tend to stick to a more consistent route. A female’s route can vary while following moving prey near the Antarctic Polar Frontal Zone or within pack ice off the Antarctic shelf.
Both can spend months at a time out at sea and can be found foraging thousands of kilometres away from their main breeding areas. When hunting, elephant seals can dive over 1,500 metres (approximately 1 mile) and remain submerged for more than two hours!
Want to see the world’s biggest seals in real life?
There aren’t many animals that can match the determination, strength and sheer size of the elephant seal. For a chance to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, browse our range of South Georgia expeditions below.
Famed for our unforgettable and intrepid Antarctic explorations, get in touch with our friendly team today for booking and travel information
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