Southern Elephant Seal

Males of this species are massive - the largest of all seals. Southern elephant seals can also dive deeper than other species, down to 1600 m (5250 ft). Thanks to a highly efficient respiratory system, these seals are capable of diving for up to two hours without surfacing, nor do they suffer the ‘bends’ when they head back up to the surface from the depths of the ocean.

Like northern elephant seals, these southern elephant seals gather on flat beaches to breed in spring. The males arrive first to stake out their territories, and may stay on the beaches for the next two months without feeding. Pregnant females arrive at the breeding ground a few weeks later. A male will try to mate with females as they move up the beach into his territory, even though they have not yet given birth. Mating does occur after the young Southern elephant seal are born, and during this time a male will battle to keep rivals away from his harem. However, when males are occupied in fighting, females may move between harems. Once the pups are weaned, they must fend for themselves, with the females mating again before returning to sea. On a small beach, all the females may be controlled by a single bull, called a beach master.

Distribution: Circumpolar in the southern hemisphere. Major breeding grounds are the Falklands, South Georgia and southern South America; Macquarie and neighbouring islands; Kerguelen and Heard.

Habitat: Beaches, dunes and rocky shores.

Weight: 500 - 3500 kg (1102 - 7716 lb); males are much bigger.

Length: 200 - 690 cm (79 - 270 in).

Maturity: Females 2 - 4 years; males 3 - 6 years but unlikely to breed before 10

Gestation Period: About 266 days; embryonic development only starts 3 months after fertilization.

Breeding: 1; weaning occurs by 23 days.

Diet: Mainly squid, but also take fish such as deep water sharks.

Lifespan: Up to 23 years.

Status: Common.

Head shape

The massive, trunk-like structure on the head of males explains their common name.

Mouth

This appears very red, sometimes creating the impression of bleeding.

Colouration

Both sexes are dark grey, slightly lighter in colour on the underparts.

Protection

A thick layer of blubber lies under the skin. This fat provides insulation and can be metabolized as food.

MOTHER AND PUP

Females southern elephant seal and offspring are only together on land, and nearly half of all pups do not survive their first year at sea.

Gallery of Southern Elephant Seal