Excerpt: The Crystal Desert: Southern Elephant Seals

I had the pleasure of spending time with David G Campbell during a cruise to the Antarctic. I love his book and will be posting excerpts from it from time to time.

The book is called “The Crystal Desert:  Summers in Antarctica” and is published by the Houghton Mifflin Company.

“A superior personal account of place, a remarkable evocation of a land at the bottom of the world (Boston Globe)


Male elephant seals spend most of their terrestrial hours threatening, glaring, blubbering, inflating their proboscises, biting, and bashing other males, while the females, gravid with the fetuses of the last season, watch indifferently. I once spent an afternoon on the beach at Stromness, on South Georgia Island, where hundreds of elephant seals haul out every summer amid the rubble of an abandoned Norwegian whaling station. The seals wallowed inside the broken shells of buildings and undulated over the cables, platforms and winches. The beach resounded with the guttural declarations of the male seals, sounding like long and satisfying belches. The males rose up to batter their opponents with chests and heads. Sometimes two males used each other as supports in order to thrust higher and higher, until they teetered on their bellies like Brobdingnagian sumo wrestlers, bloodshot eye to bloodshot eye, toothy mouths gaping. United, they were taller than I and ninety times my weight, but they were so engrossed in the contest that they ignored me. The battle ended when one collapsed and retreated to the uncontested sea.

The victorious beachmaster will never know his offspring, which will be born a year later in early September, very likely on the territory of another male. Uncertain of the paternity of the current season’s pups, he takes no interest in their welfare, and in fact may maim or kill the babies by stepping or wallowing on them. The females go into estrus nineteen days after giving birth, and the job of the male is to wait until her behavior and chemical cues invite him to repeated brief copulations on the hard rock beach. Their union is without delicacy, a study in incongruity. Four times her weight, he pulls her close with his flipper and, seemingly enveloping her, strains his ventrum towards hers.

However elaborate and prolonged the male elephant seal’s territorial defense, maternal behavior is simple and abbreviated. The pup, which weighs about forty-five kilograms when born, doubles its weight in eleven days, and quadruples it in twenty-one. By then its mother has entered estrus, and the pup is fully weaned and on its own. Like penguin chicks, elephant seal pups have a surfeit of baby fat and may spend several days or weeks waiting on the beach before entering the sea. Big-eyed and short-nosed, they bear only a slight resemblance to the adults. By the middle of October, just when the phytoplankton are increasing and the sea is full of food, they take the plunge. Relying solely on instinct to hunt for squid, the seals are vulnerable during their first weeks at sea, and many of them die. If squid are abundant in the years to come, the females will first conceive in their fourth year, but in their fifth or sixth year if resources are scarce. Bulls also reach puberty after four or five years, but they don’t attain social maturity – the body size and savvy requisite to defending a territory – for at least seven years.

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