Published: November 2008

Elephant Seals

Two juvenile elephant seals lie on the beach

Shore Leave

A rough and randy mating season for the elephant seals of South Georgia Island

By Susan Casey
Photograph by Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott

When it comes to ocean predators, it's easy to underestimate the southern elephant seal. It doesn't have the lordly bearing of the sperm whale or the fighter-jet sleekness of the white shark or the stellar IQ of the orca. Unlike the giant squid or the leopard seal, it lacks an aura of mystery and menace. And who came up with its physique—Dr. Seuss? That would explain the nose, a preposterous trunk that can grow one-and-a-half feet long, earning the elephant seal its name. To judge by appearance, this is one misfit beast. Car-size and blimp-shaped, on land the southern elephant seal (Mirounga Leonine) is usually found lolling around on the beach. But as with other sea creatures, the truth lies below the surface. Sure, it's no supermodel, but underneath the blubbery disguise the elephant seal turns out to be a superhero, its life a series of magnificent feats.

To see where the action takes place, run your finger down a map of South America until you hit Tierra del Fuego and then veer sharply east. Nine hundred miles past the Falklands you'll find South Georgia Island, a hundred-mile-long silhouette of jagged, ice-capped peaks that juts out of what some call the Southern Ocean, the vast belt of water surrounding Antarctica. It's a harsh destination for humans, accessible only by a white-knuckle boat trip that can last five days in South Atlantic gales. But for the seals, which spend 80 percent of their time hunting in these waters, South Georgia is an ideal gathering spot. Come mating season, some 400,000 southern elephant seals will line its shores.

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