REPORT: March of the Elephant Seals
Trip Start Dec 01, 2009
7Trip End Dec 20, 2009
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December 14, 2009
Latitude: 65° 14’ S
Longitude: 066° 15.35’ W
Many of us have seen the amazing story of the Emperor Penguins in the movie “March of the Penguins.” Through this remarkable film we witnessed the incredible devotion to procreation these irrepressible birds display by hatching their eggs and nurturing their young in the most harsh conditions imaginable!
In any case, what we witnessed today was, in my (insulated-with-21st-century-cold-weather-gear) Antarctic explorer’s opinion, pretty unimaginable in its own right.
Our Zodiacs came ashore at Barrientos Island, part of the Aitcho Island group, under typically gloomy skies this morning after breakfast. As we arrived, Expedition Leader Hannah pointed out the island’s lone King Penguin, who apparently was lost, maybe permanently since Hannah said he was here the last time they visited as well. Standing stock still, with a stance reminiscent of the sentries at Buckingham Palace, he endured the staccato of camera shutters as the Polar Star paparazzi crowded around to capture the only unique sight in view. By now, we’ve waded through so many gentoo and chinstrap penguin colonies that having this taller, more stately-looking King Penguin to gaze upon was a bit of a novelty to our penguin-jaded eyes.
Hannah had mentioned that there might be some elephant seals pulled up on the beach on the other side of the island. This meant a hike through the snow and over a saddle on a ridgeline to reach the beach. Most opted out of this level of exertion, fearing, I suppose, that what waited on the other side was no more exciting than the couple of elephant seals we’d seen yesterday, huddled together like a couple of massive, overstuffed bratwurst.
They were wrong! What waited on the other side was the almost indescribable March of the Elephant Seals! But first, we gained the distinction of marching through green snow, tinted by a species of algae that actually survives amidst these conditions! As I crested the ridge, I could see rain and snow, and some of our shipmates wandering along the beach, not much else.
Luckily, however, I didn’t turn around at that point. Kathlene and Kay from our group, as well as Pierre and Wendy from the ship staff, pointed out a group of seals huddled together under a unique volcanic cone about 100 meters away. After we watched these guys for a bit – they were a little more active than the bratwurst we saw yesterday – one of them started to move towards the beach.
As I came around the cinder cone to get a better view, I realized that there were quite a few seals along the beach, and that more than one was on the move – the March of the Elephant Seals. For the next 45 minutes we picked our way among the seals, maybe 25 or 30 of them, taking photos as much as possible through the steady rain, and working hard to keep our lenses dry enough to operate.
The seals were mainly huddled in groups of two and three, snuggling together more out of instinct than the need for warmth. The day was not cold – maybe 35 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit – and these animals clearly carried enough blubber to ward off temperatures far lower than that. Occasionally, a scuffle would break out, one or the other of a group being rejected from the huddle and protesting noisily.
What fascinated us most, however, was the march from the wallow to the water. In particular, we were mesmerized by the march of one massive seal, a male, yet not full grown, since he still lacked the huge bulbous nose that gives this species their name. We watched as this seal, moving like a gigantic, obese inchworm, made the laborious struggle from the snow to the beach. Later in the day, during a shipboard lecture, we learned that the breeding grounds for elephant seals in the South Georgia Island, across the Drake Passage, are dominated by so-called “beach master” males weighing 6000 pounds on average (the largest ever recorded was at 11,000 pounds!).
This guy must have been at least 3000 to 4000 pounds, and had to stop every three or four inchworm cycles to rest from the exertion of moving that much weight against the friction of the snow and sand. Slowly he worked his way over the snow and onto the beach, resting frequently as he went, and offering us plenty of time to get our cameras out. Finally, he reached the welcoming waters and we could almost feel his relief as the buoyancy of the water eased his struggle. Only the challenge of keeping our cameras dry kept us from bursting into applause. Jabba the Hut would have been proud! And after the moving performance of this seal, I maintain that the “March of the Elephant Seals” could perhaps be as noble, if not as lengthy, as the “March of the Penguins.”