Elephant seals are one of the most well known seals in the world. They are also not only the largest seal on earth, they are the largest member of the order carnivora, which includes bears, cats, dogs, and other seals. Spending much of their lives in the open ocean, these seals attract crowds when they “haul out” for the breeding season. Due to their unique noses, males of the species are more iconic. These seals belong to the true seal family. This is because they have no ears. There are two subspecies of seal, Northern and Southern.
Northern elephant seals are smaller than their Southern relatives. Males generally weigh 5,000 lbs (2,300 kg). They generally reach a length of 15′ (4.5 m). Females are much smaller. They weigh 1,400 lbs (640 kg), and reach 11, (3 m) in length. This subspecies migrates from their summer feeding grounds near Alaska to Northern California and Baja California during their haul out in December. Males reach land first, and strong males stake claim to sections of beaches. These “beach masters” will defend harems of 20 to 100 females. Males often engage in bloody battles over females. The males use their size to slam into other males, and they bite into their opponent with their canine teeth. The beach masters attract females by inflating their noses and shaking them. This makes a pinging sound that the females enjoy to hear. When the pregnant females give birth, their pups, or “weaners,” weigh close to 75 lbs (35 kg) and measure 4′ (1 m) in length. Nursing on their mothers fatty milk, the weaners gain 10 lbs (4 kg) a day. Soon after they give birth, the females become pregnant again. In 11 months, they will give birth again. While on the beaches, the adult seals will molt, or shed their old skin. During this time, the seals are susceptible to the cold, and cannot go in the water as a result. While on the beach, the seals live off of their fat stores. After their 3 months on shore, the seals leave the beaches to return to feeding in the open ocean. The weaners are abandoned on the beaches. They soon learn to swim, and leave the beaches to pursue a life in the open ocean.
Southern elephant seals are larger then their Northern cousins. Males generally weigh 5,000 to 9,000 lbs (2,200 to 4,000 kg), and reach lengths of 14 to 19′ (4.2 to 5.8 m). While much smaller, females weigh 900 to 2,000 lbs (400 to 900 kg) and span 9′ (3 m) in length. Since the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, the Southern seals come ashore in September. They most commonly haul out in Georgia, Argentina, Chile, Tasmania, New Zealand, and Antarctica. Males stake claim to beaches, and the females arrive soon after. The pups are born in early October. Weighing about 90 lbs (40 kg) at birth, and measure 4′ in length (1 m). They gain roughly 10 lbs (35 kg) each day. After 4 weeks of nursing, the females leave the pups alone as they return to the ocean to feed.
Elephant seals are voracious eaters. They feast for months at a time. Unlike other seals which feed near the surface, elephant seals dive far down to hunt. On average, the seals can dive 1,500 to 5,000′ ( 500 to 1,520 m). These dives can last from 20 to 60 minutes. While diving, elephant seals hunt fish, squid, octopi, crustaceans, skates, rays, and occasionally small sharks. While at sea, the seals must watch out for great white sharks and orcas, which are the seals main predators. Although the seals are large, they would stand little chance against a full grown orca or white shark.