A growing family of Northern elephant seals is making parts of Fidalgo and Whidbey islands home — an unusual development that may indicate more of the species will be moving in as the global climate and waters of the Pacific Ocean warm.
Representatives from the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said about 10 years ago a female elephant seal came ashore on southern Whidbey Island. During a visit five years later, she gave birth to a pup.
That pup is now a large male — with the inflatable nose that earned the species its name — and continues to spend time each year on Whidbey Island beaches.
His mother also returned to the area two years ago to give birth to a female known as Elsie Mae — who has chosen Fidalgo Island as a repeat destination — and again this year to give birth to the clan’s latest addition.
Garry Heinrich, volunteer coordinator and response leader for the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network based on Whidbey Island, said those tracking the animals have given them names. Mom is Ellie, son is Ellison, and the now few-weeks-old daughter is Eloise.
“It’s really a unique situation when you have animals like Ellie and her offspring that really seem to have a site fidelity for Puget Sound,” NOAA marine mammal biologist Jeff Harris said. “They were born on the island and then bounced around from there.”
Northern elephant seals have a range from Alaska to Mexico, according to NOAA. Most of the animals make their way along the coast, but some venture into Puget Sound.
“They can dive to a mile deep, so they hang around the continental shelf primarily,” Harris said. “There’s a few animals — I don’t think anybody really knows how many — that actually use the Puget Sound.”
Little is known about elephant seals because they spend nine months of the year in the water where they are difficult to spot, especially because they dive thousands of feet deep to eat squid and fish, according to NOAA.
“They behave more like whales than they do seals. They go on these big dives and you just don’t see them that often,” Harris said.
When they come ashore in what are called haul-outs to breed and shed old fur and skin — or molt — the majority do so in areas of California. There, their numbers crowd the beaches.
Perhaps this family using Whidbey and Fidalgo islands is a sign that one day local beaches will be home to groups of these seals as well.
“If that happens here that would be remarkable,” Heinrich said.
AN UNUSUAL GROUP
While it wasn’t unheard of to see elephant seals in the Salish Sea before Ellie and her offspring arrived, Harris and Heinrich said it’s particularly unusual that they are spending time on beaches here, don’t appear to be leaving to make the typical long-range ocean migrations, and are off-schedule compared to the rest of the species.
“These ones up here are a little different just because they are doing some interesting stuff ... They’re almost acting more like a harbor seal than an elephant seal,” Harris said.
Ellie has come to the same Whidbey Island shoreline to give birth each time. Her young have fanned out in the area, with Ellison choosing another location on Whidbey Island and Elsie Mae popping up the past two years at various sites on Fidalgo Island.
Harris said he’s interested to see if Eloise will return to the region in coming years.
Currently, each is at a favorite spot.
“This is all very odd behavior for elephant seals in general,” Heinrich said.
While elephant seals typically give birth in December or January, Eloise was born several months later.
It’s unclear why her mother, Ellie, is on a different birthing schedule and where she goes when she’s not here.
“Wherever mom is getting pregnant, who knows where that is,” Heinrich said.
It’s clear, though, based on the amount of time between sightings, that Ellison and Elsie Mae don’t make the up to 13,000-mile migration most of their kind complete each year, according to NOAA.
“The cool thing about these Puget Sound animals is that they don’t do that, they just go back and forth from their spots between the islands,” Harris said.
WHILE THEY’RE HERE
While at area island beaches as they are now, this group of seals molt.
For elephant seals, it’s called a “catastrophic molt” because the animals lose a thick layer from their body. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has called it “a surprisingly bloody process.”
“You could be looking at a half-inch layer or more of material coming off,” Heinrich said.
For the few elephant seals in this area, the sight has frequently caused alarm.
“We get calls about them because they look terrible ... people are like ‘this animal is dying,’” Harris said.
The process can take as long as five weeks, according to NOAA.
While they’re ashore, Harris and Heinrich urge those who see them to keep a safe distance. The animals can be territorial and can move more quickly than might be expected for an animal their size.
“They can move pretty quick when provoked,” Harris said. “They’re not teddy bears.”
A minimum of 100 yards is recommended.
The species is the largest seal found in the Northern Hemisphere, with males reaching up to 13 feet long and 4,400 pounds, according to NOAA. Females such as Elsie Mae can get up to 10 feet long and 1,300 pounds.
Heinrich has personal experience with the agility and ferocity of elephant seals.
“When I started working with these animals in the 1970s (in California), a baby broke my foot,” Heinrich said. “She bit down on it and broke every bone ... They are very powerful.”
They can be particularly short-tempered while going through the painful process of molting.
Elephant seals are also protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. That means it’s illegal to interact with them.
“Anything that disturbs their behavior or in any way changes what they are doing is technically harassment and against the law,” Heinrich said. “My rule of thumb is if they open their eyes and they look at you, you’re too close.”
Usually the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network would send volunteers to keep watch over the social Elsie Mae, to make sure she and the public are protected. Like most everything else, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into that practice.
A LARGER TREND
While Ellie and her offspring have laid their claim to Fidalgo and Whidbey island beaches, a growing number of elephant seals has also been noted on other area islands.
The National Park Service said in 2015 elephant seals were being seen in increasing numbers on San Juan Island, where some land is designated a National Historical Park.
Before that, state and federal wildlife agencies noted that a few elephant seals were using beaches on Destruction, Protection and Minor islands, as well as along Dungeness Spit. Some of them were documented with pups.
The increase in sightings of the animals on area islands corresponds with the general growth of the Northern elephant seal population, as well as with changes in the climate.
NOAA documents indicate the number of elephant seals isn’t certain, but has been growing steadily since hunting of the species was stopped.
“Not a lot is known about those animals, but I think as their population expands they seem to be heading further and further north,” Harris said.
Some estimates from wildlife agencies say the population could now be near 100,000 — a major shift from when they were once believed to be extinct.
“They were wiped out during whaling days when marine mammals were being harvested for oil,” Harris said.
Heinrich said there may have been elephant seals in the region before they were nearly hunted to extinction, and that the species could be starting to repopulate in the area.
“Northern elephant seals were virtually eliminated and there were about 100 of them left down on Guadalupe Island in Mexico,” Heinrich said. “With not hunting them anymore they are recovering pretty well and slowly making their way back up.”
Harris said they may also be moving north to escape waters that are getting too warm as the global climate changes.
“In some parts of their southern ranges their numbers are decreasing because it’s just getting too hot for them, so they are being driven northward,” he said. “They can’t go farther south, that’s for sure.”
— Updated 4/28 to correct the age of the first locally-born elephant seal.