17 July 2010
An Elephant Seal
There are many advantages to living in a small coastal hamlet like Schoenmakerskop near Port Elizabeth. The one is that people know me as a nature photographer and phone me if they see something interesting. Yesterday I got a call saying there is an Elephant Seal in the third bay past the monument on Sacramento Trail. I had my doubts because they are rare vagrants from the sub-Antarctic seas and expected it to be the common Cape Fur Seal.
A brisk walk and in about the 10th bay after the monument I found her (people and directions!), a beautiful young Elephant Seal about 3 meters long. She was lying on the rocks and was beautifully camouflaged. I took a few pictures and chased a few dog owners and their dogs away when Greg Hofmeyer, the marine mammologist from the local museum arrived. He had walked right past her - the fur blends in really well with the rocks. Who says there are no advantages in being a colour deficient photographer?
We sat there for about 3 hours watching the seal who, to be quite honest, was not doing much. If they come out of the water here it is normally because they are moulting and it was obvious she was. Apparently they cannot maintain their body temperature when in this state. The seal rolled a few times, yawned a lot, scratched with her flippers and borped at us once or twice (I don’t know how to describe the sound – borp works better than bark). It was great having Greg around, seals are his study speciality and I was able to learn much from him. When we moved behind the seal to try and sex the animal the seal rose up looking at us over her back – an interesting position. Greg related the story of a French researcher who approached a large male from behind, and was actually bitten on the head by the animal arching backwards over its back. The animal’s eyes seemed particularly large but given that it dives deep for its food which consists predominantly of fish and squid it is not surprising. The mouth is cavernous and again this has to do with the diet. The tongue is pink and the teeth are large and I am sure capable of causing much damage. We couldn’t get very close and were not able to determine its gender but guess it is female.
Sadly the seal did not stay long and it was probably the stream of walkers and their dogs passing the animal that made it leave. I am working on a protocol as to what should happen when an animal like a seal comes to shore. We have tried putting up signs asking people to stay away but this has the opposite effect. Dog owners claim that their little pooches would never harm a seal but the barking is not conducive to a restful recuperation on a beach. This time we kept the news of the seal off the newspapers and websites but I suppose human (and their pets) pressure is just too much for these beautiful animals.