Suburban WIld: Look what the sea washed up at Willows

Moulting female elephant seal pays local beach a visit

This northern elephant seal visited Willows Beach several years ago to moult.

This northern elephant seal visited Willows Beach several years ago to moult.

She reclined like an artists’ model, plump, still and impassive on her sandy couch.

People crowded ’round for a look and soon the protective ropes and signage went up, placed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to explain this creature did not need help or an audience. She was simply moulting at Willows Beach.

This was a few years ago, and it was an unusual place for a northern elephant seal to select. Maybe she was young and hadn’t yet learned the customs of her kind. The tradition of Misrounga angostirostris is to range from California to B.C., mating from December to March and moulting from about April through August, males and females separately.

They look messy and even diseased when moulting and don’t eat or drink for the duration, which is why passers-by stopped in concern when one graced the shores of Oak Bay. Usually they choose somewhere like Race Rocks to shed their skin, so it was a treat to see one up close at Willows.

This was a female, so she didn’t have the pendulous, fleshy snout of the male for which the species is named. The elephant seal has a completely different character from its cousin-pinniped the sociable and exhibitionistic harbour seal.

It would be an interesting piece of animal-psychology research to figure out why these close relatives have evolved such different behaviours.

Elephant seals are loners, avoiding even each other let alone humans, and spending up to 90 per cent of their time out at sea, where they dive deeply and can hold their breath under water for up to an hour.

They come to land to mate and in the case of the males, which are about four times heavier than females, to fight over mates. Since this competition is violent and bloody, the reason behind selection for size among males makes sense: only the biggest and toughest get to pass on their genes. American Zoologist tells us that six per cent of bulls impregnate 88 per cent of cows. The mothers nurse the pups for about a month, after which they are quickly sent off to pursue their solitary pelagic lifestyle.

The elephant seal of the Pacific northwest was almost wiped out by hunters by the end of the nineteenth century. Today its only predators are whales and sharks, and since it became protected in the 20th century its numbers have bounced back to over 150,000. Still, it is rare to catch sight of one, so the appearance of that strange body on the beach was quite an event one summer`s day at Willows.

Barbara Julian is a local writer and nature enthusiast. She writes here once a month about the wildlife in and around Oak Bay.