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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Elephant Seals in Combat

Air Date: Week of

The female elephant seal threatens. (Photo: Salt Marsh Diary ©)

On San Miquel, one of California’s Channel Islands, elephant seals come on shore to breed. Salt Marsh Diary writer Mark Seth Lender was in for a major surprise when two of the prehistoric-looking creatures got into a fight over a female.



CURWOOD: And, now we travel from forests….to seas:


CURWOOD: Elephant Seals spend at least two thirds of the year far out to sea. They only appear on shore to breed, seeming clumsy and out of place but elephant seals are at least as formidable on land as in water. Writer Mark Seth Lender saw the seals on the California Channel Island of San Miguel.

LENDER: Blumbering down the strand the Elephant Seal comes, eyes wide and his head in the air. Females beneath his care and command are his wealth. He will defend, and defy all who try to take them from him by the thunder of his voice, by threat of harm, by his will and his three long tons.

The Elephant Seal. A creature like no other. Even his name is a misnomer: no flappable ears, no ears we can see at all. No trunk; what grows pendulous in the middle of his huge face is more like a fighter’s bulbous nose. Nor does he sport tusks. But the folds of his skin say pachyderm and hereabouts, surely he is the biggest.

Four long months, without nourishment of any kind, Elephant Seal lies on the beach and sleeps while the cove about him roils with life and sound: Snorts and coughs and blowing noses of the pups; Coarse growls of mates; A newborn begging for the teat screaming like a broken piccolo. Elephant seal ignores them all. Only to the occasion will he rise….

Having done with nursing and mothering, quietly, while her pup sleeps, one of Elephant Seal’s females begins her escape toward the sea. A Young Bull, smooth of skin and dark and sure sees his chance and comes to pursue what the old bull claims for his own. Eyes wide as an elephant in musth, Elephant Seal wakes with a roar. Chest proud, he charges the foe, sounding his Song of War. In close, all tooth and gaping maw they tear and slash and puncture, red trails of spittle and foam, the slap of bulk on bulk, mass against bone…

Dusk. The female lies with Young Bull, there in a leeward shallow sheltered by a great stone rising like a new throne. Elephant Seal, gouged and gray, lies exhausted, part of his regal nose torn away.

Dawn. The cove is quiet. Even the air is still. Elephant Seal wakes in all his cranky majesty, Beachmaster only in name. He will leave now for the far offshore and never reappear. Not here. Not anywhere. He glomps and flumps his laborious way to the sea. Thuh-bla blu blomp… blomp… And gathers what greatness remains. And goes forward. And goes on.

Behind him, he leaves his mark, a wake made of sand that will last only till the tide comes in, and wipes it away.


CURWOOD: Salt Marsh Diary, a collection of Mark Seth Lender’s writings on wildlife, will be published this coming March by St. Martin’s Press. To see photos of the elephant seals, go to our website, LOE.org.

And before we go - here are some more of Mark’s recordings from the elephant seal colony on San Miguel Island – females and pups call out while bulls clap their flippers to fend off other males.




To see a short film by Mark Lender of the elephant seal combat scene, go to our Facebook page, PRI’s Living on Earth.

Salt Marsh Diary

Learn more about the Channel Islands

Back Story: Listen to a short interview with Mark Seth Lender about his trip to San Miquel Island to see Elephant Seals.


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