SeaDoc interns monitor elephant seal stranded at West Beach
September 6, 2011 · Updated 9:59 PM
A young male northern elephant seal was discovered washed ashore on the sand beneath the West Beach Resort pier early last Thursday morning. He looked exhausted, with strands of bull kelp wrapped around his head.
“His respiration rate was a little fast for that large of an animal,” said Ashley Briese, a third-year veterinary student from Oregon State University on an eight-week internship with the SeaDoc Society.
Briese and fellow intern Greg Bishop assessed the seal's condition as part of their work with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. They noted no obvious injuries, although Briese said he seemed a little thin. The seal was a sub-adult male, judging by the length of his stubby nose – not yet the long, flexible erectile snout of mature males that earned the species the moniker, “elephant seal.”
As the tide rolled in around noon, the interns had begun lining up stranding network volunteers to monitor the seal. The knot of onlookers watched anxiously while the waters swirled over the animal's head. After a few long minutes, the blunt gray nose breached the surface for a few whuffly breaths. The tide lifted his massive body and the seal roused himself, gliding heavily away down the bay.
He hasn't been seen since.
“We seem to be seeing more and more [elephant seals] in the San Juans these days,” said SeaDoc director Joe Gaydos.
"Conservation-wise, it’s incredible,” added Briese.
Northern elephant seals were hunted to near-extinction in the 1880s for their valuable blubber – “There is 350 liters of oil in one big male,” Briese explained. A large bull can weigh up to 5,000 pounds, dwarfing the roughly 500-pound females. Under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, populations began to rebound.
"If the seal had been sick or injured," said Briese, “We would have made every attempt to transport him to Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on San Juan Island for treatment. It would have been a large challenge with such a large animal, but it is very possible and they have transported large sea lions there before. We would have treated him accordingly and then released him.”
Elephant seal facts
National Geographic identifies two species of elephant seal: the smaller northern species, which range from Baja, Mexico up along the coast to the Aleutian Islands; and the southern species, which limit their travels to the coast off Antarctica.
Northern elephant seals' few natural predators include great white sharks and orcas. Briese said the animals routinely feed at 1,000 feet, their diet including spiny dogfish and lots of squid. They often dive for 30 minutes between breaths, although they can last two hours on long dives.
The Tagging of Pacific Predators project has routinely recorded feeding elephant seals diving 1,800 feet below the surface, and sometimes as deep at 4,650 feet.
Elephant seals sometimes haul out on beaches for about four weeks in order to molt; this March a 275-pound young male elephant seal hauled out on Lopez Island. But molting in the San Juans is extremely rare, so Briese didn’t think the West Beach visitor was there for that purpose.
An intern's delight: necropsies
Along with participating in weekly rounds to check in on harbor seal pups at Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, the interns have also helped with weekly necropsies of marine mammals discovered in area waters.
Briese said one highlight of her summer was getting to examine a dead bull stellar sea lion discovered at the tide line on Dinner Island. The team spent 45 minutes using ropes and pulleys to haul the 2,000-pound mammal on board their boat in order to return it to the lab for a necropsy.