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Large and unusual visitors at our shores

Avatar of inke inke - 07. février 2018 - Environment

An elephant seal at Pelican Point near Walvis Bay. This rather shy animal was discovered in the colony of Cape fur seals.

Dirk Heinrich

Something large and ungainly was lying just above the high-water mark on a beach in Skeleton National Park. Some vehicles had driven past, probably because the brown lump looked like one of the many tree trunks that get deposited on the beaches. But then the ‘trunk’ turned out to be a young bull southern elephant seal. The bulky marine mammal seemed unperturbed by the people around him. It simply lay there and watched the strange creatures with its big brown eyes. But when somebody touched the flattened tail of the more than four metre long animal it turned around with incredible speed and with its mouth slightly open looked the intruder straight in the eye. Nobody would have expected a sluggish looking elephant seal move so fast. He then flopped down again to continue sunbathing. 

A young elephant seal that was observed at Pelican Point near Walvis Bay a few years ago behaved differently. As soon as a vehicle approached the animal fled into the ocean waves together with the resident Cape fur seals. An elephant seal was last seen on our coast on 13 January this year at Baker’s Bay in Sperrgebiet National Park south of Lüderitz. That animal had already been spotted there a month earlier. Scientists say that southern elephant seals are rare but nevertheless regular visitors to our coastline. They are members of the earless seal family (Phocidae). By contrast, the Cape fur seals which are at home on our shores belong to the eared seal family (Otariidae). 

Southern elephant seals are the largest seals on the planet. Fully grown males may weigh more than four tons. The northern elephant seal is slightly smaller than its southern relative. The range of the northern and southern species does not overlap. Populations of southern elephant seals are found on the sub-Antarctic islands between the latitudes of 40 and 60 degrees south, where they mate and give birth. Females are much smaller than males. Pups weigh 35-40 kg at birth. They grow very fast, gain weight rapidly and are weaned within a few weeks. After mating, the adults take to the ocean to forage for food. Then they come ashore again to moult, which takes about two weeks. Some animals, especially young ones, roam far from their habitat and even end up at our coast. The elephant seal which was seen at Baker’s Bay was probably moulting and moved back south afterwards.        

A female elephant seal was spotted near Pelican Point on 8 August 1986. The large earless seal then stayed at Long Beach from 23 August to 4 September to change its coat, after which it was seen at Mile 14 on 15 October and near Wlotzkasbaken on 19 October. The next day it appeared at the mouth of the Omaruru River in Henties Bay. The same seal was seen again in January the following year near Horingbaai north of Cape Cross. In those days sightings of unusual marine mammals were reported by the public and registered by the Ministry of Fisheries and the Environment.  

Anyone who comes across unusual seals, tagged animals or carcasses at the coast can help by sending pictures with details to scientists Diina Mwaala and Dr Jean-Paul Roux. Posts to the Facebook page of Lüderitz Marine Research are also very welcome. 

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