Goliaths of the beach
Elephant seals are thriving again on the West Coast, including a new colony on Race Rocks off Vancouver Island.
August 04th, 2020
At the end of the 19th century, elephant seals had been overhunted to the brink of extinction. Actions by the Mexican government in 1922, “protected — and ultimately saved — a whole species,” says Linda Rogers in her new book.
Review by Beverly Cramp
While driving down the California Coast a few years ago, Linda Richards caught sight of a highway sign: Vista Point: Elephant Seal Viewing Area.
Visiting seals wasn’t anywhere near the top of her sightseeing list but she pulled over for a “quick peek” at a beach below.
From a distance, she thought she was looking at hundreds of dead creatures on the sand. Then she realized they were all seals “flipper to flipper and tail to tail,” lying on the beach companionably, flipping sand. They seemed to be having seal conversations.
She later wrote, “Imagine a creature the size of a small bus, making sounds as loud as an airplane taking off and moving inelegantly — though not always slowly — across the sand.”
Richards was soon hooked on the seals, especially the odd-looking males with their blubbery big noses. “You don’t forget the first time you see an adult male elephant seal,” she recalls in Return from Extinction: The Triumph of the Elephant Seal (Orca $24.95 hc) due out in October.
Only mature males have those big, protruding noses which give the mammals their name. They aren’t related to elephants.
“As far as scientists can tell, the purpose of the nose is all about breeding,” she says. “The bigger the nose, the more awesome, impressive and scary sounds the male can make. This scares off smaller (and probably less noisy) competitors when establishing their territories.”
The males can weigh over 2,000 kilograms while the females are much smaller at just over 700 kilograms. The females look like what everyone expects a seal to look: “They have large eyes, a smooth head and a friendly expression.”
Richards took the time to find out that the spectacle she had witnessed was a recent phenomenon. “Not so many years ago, there were no seals on the beach,” she was told by a docent at the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery. “Not so many years before that, there were only 20 to 70 northern elephant seals left in their entire range.”
Their recovery seemed like a miracle to Richards. She wondered how it had occurred. Overhunting had brought the northern elephant seals to the edge of extinction when they were killed for their oil in the mid-to-late 1800s.
“The records of early hunters describe huge numbers and easy pickings,” she writes. “The animals could be shot or herded to one part of a beach and clubbed — females, males, young and old — and no one cared for anything but the oil in the animals’ blubber.”
By the end of the 19th century, elephant seals were scarce. In 1892, a couple of naturalists found nine northern seals at Guadalupe Island off Mexico. “In the name of science, the men killed seven of the nine for the Smithsonian Institution,” says Richards, adding that they considered it justifiable because as one of them explained, the species was doomed to extinction and few if any specimens were in North American museums.
Fortunately, by 1922, the Mexican government banned any further hunting of the northern elephant seals. Their numbers increased every year from then on. “In the end,” says Richards, “they protected — and ultimately saved — a whole species.”
By 2020, elephant seal populations have reached nearly a quarter million. They range from Mexico to northern B.C. and the Aleutian Islands.
A new colony has now taken hold at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve in the Juan de Fuca Strait off southern Vancouver Island. Numbering around twenty collectively, every year these elephant seals return to birth and raise pups.
Return from Extinction: The Triumph of the Elephant Seal is for ages 9 – 12.