The Splendor and Travail of Elephant Seals

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on February 14, 2011

Stephen and Camilla with a seal in the backgroundOn Sunday, February 7, I joined several Animal Legal Defense Fund colleagues and friends on an annual pilgrimage to witness one of nature’s most amazing spectacles. At this time of year, elephant seals gather on the beach at Año Nuévo State Park, on the central California coast, to give birth and to mate. The sheer bulk of these magnificent beings – males are 16 to 18 feet long and can weigh 2.5 tons – makes them seem almost invulnerable. They are fully protected in the park, but the history of human interactions with elephant seals is a cautionary tale of our power to destroy as well as to preserve.

A mother and her pup sunningWhen Europeans arrived in the Americas they began slaughtering elephant seals for their blubber which, when boiled down, provided a prized oil. One large bull elephant seal could yield 25 gallons of the oil making the trade extremely lucrative. So successful was the massacre that, by 1892, hunting had reduced the number of elephant seals to only 50 -100 animals.

Thankfully, both the Mexican and U.S. governments fully protected the seals in the early 1900s. Through the foresight of people for whom conservation was only a budding concept, the remaining seals survived and their numbers and range has steadily increased. Today, elephant seals number approximately 160,000.

A bull sealOn this gloriously warm and sunny Sunday morning (for us humans anyway, the seals prefer cold rain), we were treated to a spectacle that has changed little for millions of years. The raucous sounds of newborns and mothers calling to each other combines with the occasional drumming sounds of bulls (that can be heard for miles) issuing a threat to rivals who come too close to their “harem” of females. It was easy to forget the ruthlessness of our forebears and to bask in the awe and wonder of nature. I am reminded of a portion of a favorite Seals on the beachquote from Henry Beston’s, “The Outermost House”:

For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

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