There are two species of elephant seal: the northern elephant seal, which is found along the Pacific coast of the U.S.A., Canada and Mexico, and the slightly larger southern elephant seal which lives in Antarctica and sub-Antarctic locations.
Southern elephant seals are massive creatures. Weighing up to 3,500 kg, they are the largest carnivores on the planet—as much as seven times heavier than an adult polar bear. Their name, however, doesn’t come from their vast size, but from the trunk-like proboscis that male adults use to make incredibly load roaring noises. During the mating season, male seals roar to attract mates. The large nose also functions as a rebreather of sorts, allowing elephant seals to reabsorb moisture from their own exhalations. This is vitally important during the mating season, when males can’t leave the beach to feed and would otherwise be at risk of dehydration.
Unsurprisingly, elephant seals are slow and cumbersome on land. But in the water, it’s a different story. When it’s time to hunt squid and fish, elephant seals dive to depths between 400 and 1,000 meters. Their torpedo-like shape makes them excellent swimmers, while special adaptations allow them to stay underwater for more than 20 minutes. Before they dive, they exhale to prevent oxygen decompression sickness. To avoid suffocation, they are able to store oxygen in hemoglobin and in their muscles. They also slow their heart rate to just 5 to 15 beats per minutes, sending blood to only the most vital organs.
In the water, elephant seals have to watch out for killer whales and great white sharks. Leopard seals also prey upon elephant seal pups. But the greatest ever threat to elephant seals came from humans. They were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century, when they were slaughtered in vast numbers for their oil. Thankfully, the southern elephant seal population recovered, and today their conservation status is classified as of least concern.
Other Antarctica Wildlife
Adélie Penguin / Chinstrap Penguin / Emperor Penguin / Gentoo Penguin / Macaroni Penguin / Crabeater Seal / Fur Seal / Leopard Seal / Ross Seal / Weddell Seal / Blue Whale / Fin Whale / Humpback Whale / Killer Whale / Minke Whale / Right Whale / Sei Whale / Sperm Whale
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Greg Mortimer / Hondius / Le Boreal / Magellan Explorer / Ocean Nova / Ortelius / Plancius / Sylvia Earle / Ushuaia
Top Antarctica Travel Destinations
The Antarctic Peninsula / The South Shetland Islands / The Weddell Sea / South Georgia Island / The Falkland Islands