Southern Elephant Seal
Southern Elephant Seal

Southern Elephant Seal

Nothing can prepare you for the astonishing size of these amazing creatures!

Information about Southern Elephant Seal

Our Expert Says… "Rather than collecting harems as some people think, male Elephant seals are fighting over who controls the best bit of the beach as far as the females are concerned! This is because the females come into season a short time after their pups are weaned and those that are in "his patch" will be ready to accept his advances."

Southern Elephant Seals are a remarkable sight! The adult males can grow up to 5.7m (19ft) in length and weigh in at over 3,600kg (8,000lb)! The females, while still enormous by most standards, are dwarfed by these huge bulls, even though they themselves can be over 2.7m (9ft) long and weigh up to 860kg (1,900lb).

In fact, the Southern Elephant seal is the world’s largest non-cetacean marine mammal, and there are thought to be about 750,000 of them. They range throughout most of the southern oceans, feeding close to the Antarctic continent, but they travel to the subantarctic islands to breed.

One of the most important breeding areas is South Georgia Island, where over 110,000 breeding females have been counted. There is also a significant presence of Southern Elephant Seals in the Falkland Islands.

Their breeding season runs from August to November and starts with the huge bulls gathering on the breeding beaches to fight for control of areas which will become their harem when the females arrive. The males will be at their biggest, having put on huge reserves of blubber as an energy store as they will stay on the beach guarding their territory for the whole season. Males fight by squaring up to each other and using their massive weight to push and their sharp canine teeth to gouge each other. Despite sometimes deep and dramatic wounds, these fights are rarely fatal, the losing bull usually fleeing before it’s too late.

Adding yet another record to its haul, the Southern Elephant Seal is the deepest and longest diving of all non-cetacean marine mammals. SCientists using tracking devices have measured adult seals diving for over 20 minutes and reaching depths of over 7,000ft!

Despite their huge size, Southern Elephant Seals are not immune to predators. Even adults are hunted by orcas, and pups can be taken by leopard seals.

The population of Elephant seals is currently thought to be declining, despite their breeding areas being protected. It’s thought that climate change may be impacting the availability of their food supply and its ability to support a growing population.

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Humpback Whale
Southern Elephant Seal

Highlights where the Southern Elephant Seal can be seen

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Carcass Island

Despite the name, Carcass Island off West Falkland is not a burial site, nor a place where whales were hauled ashore for processing. It is, in fact, a beautiful and unspoiled island some 6 miles long that was named after the ship that first mapped it, HMS Carcass in 1766.

Carcass Island lies in the northwest of the Falklands and has been a sheep farm for more than a century. Despite this commercialization, Carcass Island has been carefully and sympathetically managed for wildlife. Coupled with the fact that no rats or cats have ever been introduced here, it makes Carcass a haven for birdlife, including a number of species elusive on the larger islands, such as Cobb's Wren and the Blackish Cincloides or Tussacbird, and it is an important area for conservation and protection of species.

For a small island, it boasts several habitat types. From cliffs and rocky slopes in its northeast to sheltered sandy bays in the northwest, from 700ft uplands to tussac-rich coastal paddocks. Carcass Island is also home to one of the few areas of mature trees in the whole islands, winter storms tending to make large-scale tree growth difficult. These hardy plants aren’t native species, however, with some interesting varieties from places as far-flung as New Zealand and California.

The birdlife is the star of the show on Carcass. With no land predators, several freshwater ponds, and excellent habitat management, this designated Important Bird Area (IBA) is home to many species significant to conservation. These include black-crowned night herons, Falkland steamer ducks, ruddy-headed geese, black-browed albatrosses, and striated caracaras.

There is a healthy penguin population on Carcass, including gentoos, Magellanics, and southern rockhoppers. Seals are also a common sight in the waters around the island and hauled up on the sandy beaches, including fur and elephant seals. Dolphins and sea lions are also spotted here.

Elephant Island

Elephant Island is one of the outermost of the South Shetland Islands. The roots of its name are argued to be one of two reasons. Either the fact that Elephant seals were seen hauled out here in large numbers by the first person to discover and map the island, Captain George Powell in 1821, or that the island’s shape is uncannily like that of a baby elephant’s head with trunk extended!

The island remained unexplored for many years thanks in part to its lack of resources (just small numbers of seals and penguins and no native plants) and partly because of its steep volcanic rocks, presenting few landing points.

However, in 1916 Elephant Island became immortalized as the scene of the beyond-all-odds survival story that was Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition.

After their ship Endurance was lost to the treacherous ice in the Weddell Sea, the 28 crew were forced to make a perilous escape attempt. After months in open boats and stuck on drifting ice sheets, the team arrived at Elephant Island. Here they set up a base to stay at Point Wild while Shackleton and five members of his crew set sail in an open lifeboat for South Georgia - a journey of over 800 miles - to seek a rescue ship.

This stunning tale of endurance, determination, and the human spirit is brought home to visitors to Elephant Island by the Endurance Memorial at Point Wild. You can also see breathtaking views of the Endurance Glacier - named after Shackleton’s lost ship - as well as the stunning rocky terrain and its Chinstrap Penguins and seals.

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Grytviken, Fortuna Bay

Grytviken only exists because of the whaling industry. It was opened as a whaling station in 1904 because Fortuna Bay was considered to be the best natural harbor in South Georgia. The site operated for almost 60 years and over 53,000 whale carcasses were landed and processed here.

Although founded by a Norwegian, the name “Grytviken” is actually Swedish! It means “Pot Bay” and was named by the Swedish survey expedition of 1902 because they found several old British try pots here - large vessels used to render down seal blubber.

The whaling station was abandoned in 1966 as uneconomical after stocks of whales in the region had dropped to critical levels due to over-hunting, and there are no permanent residents. However, a few officials do live here during the tourist season to manage the South Georgia Museum and the post office which is located here, that is fascinating place to visit, and even purchase some souvenirs

There is more famous Antarctic human history to discover at Grytviken. Just outside the settlement lies the grave of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famous Antarctic explorer, who died here from a sudden heart attack in 1922. There is also a marker next to his grave marking the spot where the ashes of his key crew member and fellow explorer Frank Wild were interred.

As well as the museum, Grytviken also has a church - remarkably still used for occasional services.

While most people come here for human history, the area is also great for wildlife and natural history doesn’t disappoint. Fortuna Bay is known for its large king penguin colonies and is a popular haul out for many elephant seals, as well as innumerable seabirds. Just watch out for the fur seals that may be resting amongst the whaling era debris.

Half Moon Island

Half Moon Island is rugged and rocky and lies just off the Bergas Peninsula in the South Shetland Islands and it is a very popular spot as the either the first or last landing on an Antarctic Peninsula cruise. One side of Half Moon Island has steep, scree-covered slopes and cliffs down to the water, an ideal home to many Antarctic sea birds. The other parts of the island are characterized by pebble and boulder beaches leading to shallower slopes.

Visitor numbers are strictly controlled to ensure that the resident terns, gulls, and penguins aren’t disturbed, especially during their breeding seasons.

Your landing site is a cobbled beach where the remains of a whaling dory (a type of shallow, planked boat) can be seen.

As well as penguin colonies close to the shore, your Antarctic exploration guides will show you the Half Moon Island chinstrap penguin nesting sites near a navigation tower at the top of the hill, as well as the amazing Wilson’s Storm Petrel burrows that have been dug into the scree slopes here. Half Moon has also had a lone Macaroni penguin for a number of years, and others occasionally turn up here.

Your guides will also show you the areas where you can roam freely, always keeping an eye out for Fur Seals whose colors camouflage themselves against the rocks.

Half Moon Island is also home to the Argentinian Summer Antarctic Research Station. You may well spot scientists undertaking important surveys and research work during your visit.

The is also the stunning backdrop of the snow covered and rugged Livingstone Island with the tumbling glaciers.

Mawson’s Huts and Cape Denison

Cape Denison is at the eastern edge of the Australian Antarctic Territory at the head of Commonwealth Bay. The peninsula is mostly free of ice and made up of a series of rocky valleys and ridges.

The importance of the Cape to Antarctic human history lies in the collection of buildings known as Mawson’s Huts. These were built and lived-in during an Australian Antarctic Expedition that ran from 1911 to 1914, led by the explorer and geologist Sir Douglas Mawson.

The huts that now bear his name are very rare, being only one of six sites that still remain from the so-called “heroic era” of Antarctic exploration. There are several buildings that were constructed to house scientific instruments, including taking magnetic readings and astronomical observations. There was also a radio hut - the first time radio transmission was used in the Antarctic.

The main hut at Cape Denison has undergone some preservation work but snowfall can still often get inside. Because of the delicate nature of the hut, only 4 people at any time are allowed inside. There you can find an amazing time capsule from the early 20th century, including the cast-iron stove, bottles, jars, cans, and other everyday items. Some of the storage shelves have the names of the men who placed their belongings there written on them with the date - still legible after 120 years.

Apart from Mawson’s Huts, Cape Denison is a popular spot for breeding wildlife. Weddell seals can often be seen with pups during the breeding season, and there are also bird colonies including skuas, petrels, and penguins.

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Prion Island

Prion Island, like many places in the Antarctic, was named after what was first seen there. In this case, during an expedition of 1912, the island was named because the naturalist Robert Cushman Murphy noted the large numbers of prions he found here.

The prion is a small petrel also sometimes known as a whalebird, and they get their unusual name because of their saw-tooth bill - the word prion in greek means “saw”.

Prion Island sits in the 9-mile-wide Bay of Isles off the northern coast of South Georgia. It is only 1.5 miles in length but it has been designated a Specially Protected Area in its entirety. Because it has always been rat-free, birds can raise their young here without fear of their nests being raided by non-native scavengers. Because of the need to protect the wildlife, there are strict restrictions on visitor numbers, and only 50 people per day are allowed ashore during the season when Prion Island is open to visitors, so guests are often split between going ashore, doing a really good Zodiac cruise, and sometimes with being onboard ship. You’ll also find that your naturalist guides will ensure that no one is carrying anything on to the island that could harbor an invasive species.

To protect the native flora and to avoid damage to petrel and prion burrows, the South Georgia authorities have built a boardwalk, and you will be required to stay on it at all times during your visit. Don’t worry, though, as the animals seem to have decided that they enjoy using it too and nest and feed right up to its edge, so you’ll have plenty of close encounters!

Another important species that breeds here is the wandering albatross. Indeed, Prion Island is such an important breeding center for them that the whole island is closed to visitors between 20th November and 7th January each year to allow them to pair off without disturbance. This time also coincides with the breeding season for Antarctic fur seals who also benefit from the seclusion.

Other species you can find on Prion Island include South Georgia Pipits and South Georgia Pintails, snowy sheathbills, skuas, Antarctic terns, and gentoo penguins.

Saunders Island

Saunders Island (known in Spanish as Isla Trinidad) is in the northwest of the Falkland Islands group and is the 4th largest individual island with 50 square miles of land.

Saunders Island is geographically stunning, as well as rich with remarkable wildlife. The island is made up of three peninsulas that are joined by narrow necks of land. The three uplands towner over the necks, with the tallest, Mount Richards, being 1,500ft above the waves below. The views from the headlands are astonishing.

Saunders Island has been designated an Important Bird Area (or IBA) thanks to the large numbers of breeding species that make their homes here. The beaches and cliffs are home to four species of penguin with thousands of Gentoo, Rockhopper, Magellanic, King penguins - you can’t avoid hearing their raucous cries from all over the island! There also tend to be a few Macaroni Penguins and if you are lucky to see then you will have had a five penguin species day!

Other significant species to be found on Saunders include Falkland Steamer Duck, King Shag, Black-browed Albatross, the Striated Caracara (can be very inquisitive), Turkey Vulture, and a range of shorebirds, like the Magellanic Oystercatcher, to terrestrial birds from land birds from Dark-faced Ground Tyrants to the white-bridled finch. There are rats on the island so you do not tend to see the Blackish Cincloides or Tussacbird.

In the waters off the sandy shoreline, you can see the delightful Commerson’s dolphins - their black and white markings making them seem like miniature orcas - and even South American Sea Lions. Visiting Elephant Point will bring you face-to-face with the small colony of elephant seals that live here and gave their name to the beach. At the right time of year, if you are lucky, you might find southern right whales in the sheltered bays here feeding and resting before moving on.

Torgersen Island

Torgersen Island is a very small, circular island only 450yds across. It’s part of the Palmer Archipelago and is at the entrance to Arthur Harbour on the southwest coast of Anvers Island.

It’s a popular site for breeding seabirds and Adelie penguins, but this small rock has a much larger, and more depressing, importance.

Although the current colony size of 3,000 breeding pairs seems large, since 1974 the Adelie population has reduced by over 60% due to the impact of climate change on the sea ice and snowfall patterns. An Adelie colony that was based on the neighboring Litchfield Island has disappeared completely in this time. Archeological surveys showed that penguins had been nesting there for over 600 years continuously, with up to 15,000 pairs in residence at a time. By 2007 they had all gone.

The island is very close to the American Palmer Station and it is divided into a Visitor Zone and a Restricted Zone. The Visitor Zone is for general access, whilst the Restricted Zone serves as a control site for scientific research related to human impacts. The Restricted Zone should not be entered, except in an emergency to access the emergency cache located on slopes opposite the landing site. Use the cache only in a genuine emergency and notify Palmer Station if anything is used.

Your expert Antarctic guides will show you the walking routes to take that will minimize any impact to the Adelie colony on Torgersen Island, as well as outlining the concerns that Antarctic scientists have about the continuing impact of climate change on the region’s wildlife.

This is a timely reminder of the necessity for change in the way humans live and use fossil fuels if we are to preserve the unique species and landscapes of the Antarctic. At Polartours we are playing our part in this story by carbon offsetting every polar cruise package we sell.

Our trips to spot the Southern Elephant Seal

Price
Min Price

USD 3800

Max Price

USD 15000

Duration (days)
Min Days

5

Max Days

26

Ship Category