UAB in Antarctica
overview     crew     history     sights/sounds     related links crew journals    
crew journals
Anne Fairhead, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Elephant Seals

Journal By Anne Fairhead

Posted On 3/12/2004 8:45:14 AM

One of the experiences we have had when setting up the substrate experiment is a little hard to convey in writing. The aroma of a pod of hauled out elephant seals is something you really have to experience yourself. At the moment there are several groups lying on the rocks around Kristie Cove, and being downwind is not very pleasant. We also have an area just outside the BioLab building which is very popular with elephant seals- there are none here at the moment but last year we had a bunch that hauled out for weeks which made for some weird noises at night.

These animals are the largest seals on earth- the males can weigh up to 4 tons. They spend most of their time in the water foraging for food (mainly squid) and dive hundreds of meters into the ocean to do this. But we only see the elephant seals when they have hauled out onto the rocks. On land they are not very graceful - every move seems a great effort to them. They pause for a while then heave themselves up and plonk themselves down with wobbling bodies just a little bit further along- so moving on land is pretty slow compared to how graceful they are underwater.

Some of the adults are molting their hair and skin at the moment, which you can see covering the rocks when they return to sea. You can also see (and smell) some very dark brown colored tide pools where elephant seals have been hauled out (yep, elephant seals have bodily functions just like the rest of us, and no, they don’t move away after they have done the deed, they pretty much just lay in it).

You can sit and watch the seals lying there and they will pretty much just sleep, then one will rearrange its position (more wobbling flesh) and this will disturb its neighbors who will also start wriggling and wobbling around. Then things will settle down and they sleep for a while, maybe there will be some snoring to listen to. So it is a bit of a shock when one suddenly lifts it’s head up and starts to yawn. The elephant seal yawn is not a quiet, restful sound - it is a loud, guttural sound, which is accompanied by a fairly strong aroma. So when we are in the boat and hear this noise we know it is just about time to get under the water!


TitleFromClick here to change to descending sortDate Posted
Re: Elephant SealsLynn3/16/2004 10:01:03 AM

Your story was so good! I felt like I could just imagine everything, even the smell! Having been raised on a farm, I can pretty much imagine it easily....kinda like sea pigs! and you all's place is the sty! Bless your heart!

Have fun and keep your sense of humor... its great!

Lynn Hogan
Radiology, UAB Hospital

From Anne Fairhead, Posted On 3/16/2004 10:01:04 AM

Thanks Lynn, glad you enjoyed it. I mentioned your comparison to farm smells to a few people here, and have it on good authority that elephant seals make pigs seem like house pets......

Elephant SealsMichael Todorsky3/19/2004 10:59:55 AM

I'm curious as to whether the Elephant Seal migrates to and from Antartica. I've always heard that the Pinguen was the only animal to be native to the continent. What are all the animals(mammal) associated with antartica? Which are seasonal to the continent and which stay full time?

From Anne Fairhead, Posted On 3/19/2004 10:59:56 AM

Thanks for the question Michael. Elephant seals are found throughout the southern ocean around Antarctica. There are large breeding colonies on the sub-antarctic islands (including South Georgia, Heard, Kerguelen and Macquarie Islands), but they can range as far south as the pack ice allows. They travel long distances foraging for food- often 1000s of kilometers from their breeding islands. As for what other mammals live in Antarctica, there are several species of whales (Cetaceans) and seals (Pinnieds). These are: Killer Whales, Sperm Whales, Minke Whales, Blue Whales, Humpback Whales, Bryde's Whale, Sei Whale, Fin Whale, Southern Fur Seal Crabeater Seal, Leopard Seal, Wedell Seal, Ross Seal and of course the Elephant Seal. So you can see that there are many native mammals which live along side all the birds (including the penguins).

sealsAmy-leigh4/7/2004 4:40:31 AM

Seals are the best! How do they survive in the cold? Thank you.

From Anne Fairhead, Posted On 4/7/2004 4:40:31 AM

Thanks for your question Amy. Seals (and whales and penguins) have a thick layer of fat (blubber) which acts like and insulation layer. This allows them to trap body heat. The fat layer is also used by some seals as an energy reserve (e.g. male elephant seals). Also, the large round bodies of seals (and penguins) have a small surface area to volume ratio, which also helps to minimise heat loss.

Note: This forum is closed for posting.

The researchers completed their expedition in May 2004. Feel free to search this site for their archived journals and responses to questions.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham The UAB in Antarctica expedition is founded by The National Sciens Foundation
© 2004 University of Alabama at Birmingham. All rights reserved. About this site. Created by UAB Web Communications.