In the Company of Elephant Seals

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on March 3, 2008

On February 1, a group of ALDF staffers including me joined Bruce Wagman, ALDF’s Chief Outside Litigation Counsel, for a trip to California’s Ano Nuevo State Reserve. Between December and March, Ano Nuevo is host to thousands of Northern Elephant Seals who haul out on the Reserve’s pristine beaches to mate and give birth. We were among the fortunate to bear witness to this incredible natural wonder. The experience is impossible to describe adequately but as I enjoyed the wonder of it all, I also found myself reflecting on the irony of these giants’ fragile vulnerability.

The Elephant seal commands superlatives. Adult males can weigh up to 5000 pounds, they can dive to depths nearing 5000 feet and hold their breath underwater for as long as 90 minutes. During breeding season, adult males are so busy guarding their "harems" of females that they won’t eat for three months. These adaptations have served the Elephant Seal for A beach full of sealsmillennia and have made them one of the largest carnivorous animals on earth feeding on fish, squid and even sharks. They are a formidable creature to see up close and our guide reminded us that they can move as quickly as a running human being across the dunes they call home. Recognizing the Elephant Seals’ tremendous power added to the drama and mystique of the experience. We were humbled in their presence.

But despite their enormous size and exquisitely adapted life cycle, the seals are remarkably vulnerable. Defenses and life cycles that have evolved over millions of years are no match for the changes wrought by humankind in a mere 200 years. Elephant seals were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s for the value of the oil that could be rendered from their blubber. By 1892, only an estimated 50 – 100 Northern Elephant seals remained out of a population estimated to have been more than 300,000. Today, the seals are making a comeback due to protection from hunting and protection of the remaining habitats the seals need to mate and breed. While the outlook for the time being is good, threats remain due to global climate change and over fishing which impact the seals food supply and the very web of life in the oceans.

Steve and an Elephant SealVisiting Ano Nuevo left me awestruck at the power and resilience of these magnificent creatures. But it also left me with a profound sense of moral responsibility. At this point in history, human beings have unequivocally "conquered" nature. It is we who will dictate through our action or inaction which species survive and which do not; which habitats will continue to offer refuge to our fellow earthlings and which will be converted to serve humankind as cropland, oil fields, housing tracts or strip malls. How we choose will certainly determine the fate of countless numbers of other animals and may very well determine our own fate.

Watch my home movie of a bull Elephant Seal. (Windows Media Player required.)

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