Elephant Seal



Species Spotlight

Elephant Seal

Quick Facts 

Name: Elephant seals 

Diet: Mostly carnivores - feeding on squid, fish, sharks, rays, shellfish, krill and occasionally algae 

Behaviour: Solitary except for breeding season and active throughout the day and night, sleeping in very short bursts 

Lifespan: 13 years for males and 19 years for females 

Size: Southern elephant seal males are 4.2-5.8m in length and weigh 1,500-5000kg and females are 2.6-2m and 350-900kg. Northern elephant seals are smaller with males measuring 4-5m and 1,500-2,300kg with females measuring 2.5-3.6m and 400-900kg 

Habitat/Range: Southern elephant seals are found in cold, open oceans in the Southern hemisphere and Northern elephant seals are found in open ocean in the East Pacific 

Threats: climate change, depleting fish populations 

Conservation Status: Least concern 

Species Spotlight

Names & Nicknames: Elephant seals, sea elephants

Size: Absolute units. Elephant seals are BIG, or to be more specific, male elephant seals are BIG. The Southern elephant seal is thought to show the greatest level of sexual dimorphism in the wild – when one gender is bigger than the other. In the case of Southern elephant seals, the males can be almost 6 metres long, weigh as much as a hummer, and be 8-10 times larger than the females!

Smell: Stay well away from elephant seal colonies if you have a sensitive nose. Elephant seals are usually solitary but will come together on land to mate. Smell-wise, this means a heady mix of decomposing fish, ammonia, and animal poop – imagine a nightclub bathroom at the end of a sweaty Saturday night and you’re on the right track…

Communication: They have a pungent smell and love to make a racket – you'll know if an elephant seal is in the room. A burst of burps and bellows is the usual soundtrack to males trying to maintain dominance over each other. Sounds are also very important between mothers and pups who often get separated in the chaos of a colony. Pups can recognise ‘voices’ which helps them find their mum through the madness!

Two Elephant seals

Favourite hangout: Both species of elephant seal are pelagic, meaning they like to be out in the open ocean. Southern elephant seals prefer the brutally cold, but snack-filled waters around Antarctica, whereas their Northern cousins prefer the (also pretty cold) waters of the East Pacific, off the coast of Canada and the US.

Favourite snack: These beefcakes need a lot of grub – up to 130kg per day in the case of male Northern elephant seals! Classic carnivores, these, feeding on squid, fish, rays, krill, shellfish, and even sharks.

Toilet humour: Elephant seal poop powers life. As shocking as it sounds that is true, a study found that in areas of Antarctica where elephant seals poo a lot, the rich nutrients and minerals from their waste enrich the soil and help build a thriving community of plants and invertebrates.

Love language: Love can be a violent and heated affair in elephant seals. Males will attract and then defend a group of females whom only they are allowed to mate with. This is where they earn their elephant name – inflating their trunk-like snout, an act irresistible to a female elephant seal. Once a male has established a group, there is no time to rest, and he will often have to defend it from other male elephant seals. These battles can get violent and even deadly and this is the reason males have evolved to grow to such mammoth sizes! The actual mating isn’t much calmer either as the male will bite and pin down a female to a frenzy of grunts and barks, a real gentleman…

Elephant seal sleeping

If you see them: Elephant seals tend to live in some pretty far-flung places, so this is pretty unlikely. If you were to come face to face with a 4500kg mound of blubber and teeth, it is recommended to keep your distance.

How do we harm them: Elephant seals are a rare example of an animal that is relatively undisturbed by humans due to the remote waters they call home. But this doesn't mean the ocean isn’t disturbed. Fish stocks are plummeting from overfishing, meaning these chaotic chonkers are going hungry – they may also get caught up in the trash and plastic we pump into the sea.

Epic journeys: Elephant seals travel far and wide to get enough food for their sizeable bellies – they can often spend months at sea and sometimes rock up in unexpected places. One Southern elephant seal got a wee bit lost and found themselves off the coast of Oman, over 9,000 kilometres away from its normal range!

Glow-up: It takes a while for a male elephant seal to look as glorious as it does. They don’t begin to develop their signature nose until they reach puberty at around five years old, and it still takes another 3-4 years for it to reach its full glory.

 Love can be a violent and heated affair in elephant seals.

Eating habits: Elephant seals often hunt in the murky depths of the ocean. They're packing a set of highly sensitive whiskers to help them detect movement and track down their prey in the darkness of the deep blue.

Facts: These species are amazing divers, regularly plummeting to depths of over 1.5 kilometres and holding their breath for 2 hours, the longest of any seal!

Who are they in the friendship group: A noisy brawler who loves to wrestle... and has poor personal hygiene.

How endangered are they? Both species of elephant seal are listed as Least Concern. However, in the 1880s, Northern elephant seal numbers were so low that they were thought to be extinct!