Northern Elephant Seals are the largest phocid pinniped (an earless seal) in the Northern Hemisphere. Adults are tan or brown in color with short, bristly fur. Males will grow up to be 16 feet long (4.87 m) and weigh in excess of 6,000 pounds (2,721 kg). This makes them larger than walruses and about twice the size of a typical male California Sea Lion. Due to their awkward body shape and the males’ large, fleshy snout, they have been described as looking like a moving waterbed with the face of an elephant. Adolescent males will begin to grow the pendulous snout when they are three to five years old. The snouts are used not only to attract females during breeding season, but to pummel other males during an often violent mating and dominance ritual.
Despite their cumbersome gait on land, these seals are powerful swimmers with tremendous endurance. Adults spend between 250 and 300 days in the ocean without touching land and can travel up to 13,000 miles per year. While at sea, they are skilled hunters who prey on fish, squid, octopus, sharks and rays. Because of their large size and thick hide, most predators will not even bother with Elephant Seals. Exceptions would be the other large marine species like Great White Sharks and Orcas. These are the only predators whose bite is strong enough to actually penetrate the Elephant Seal’s multiple layers of subcutaneous fat.
Elephant Seals can be found all along the Pacific coast, from Alaska to Mexico. They migrate twice a year between Californian and Mexican beaches and their feeding areas in the North Pacific Ocean. Males swim nearly 7,000 miles to feed in the Gulf of Alaska and near the eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Females swim nearly 4,000 miles west to Hawaii. No other mammal has this twice-yearly migration pattern nor travels such a long distance. When they are not at sea (which is where they spend the majority of their year), they can be found on sandy beaches for breeding or molting. Although Elephant Seals can be occasionally seen all along the Oregon Coast, Cape Arago near Coos Bay is the only area in the state where they “haul out” (come ashore) year round.
Like whales, Elephant Seals were extensively hunted during the nineteenth and late twentieth centuries for the rich oils stored in their blubber layers. These unchecked hunts brought the species to the brink of extinction, with as few as 200 individuals remaining in the Pacific by the 1900s. The species began to rebound when the United States and Mexico created laws to protect them, the most important of these being the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972. Today, Elephant Seal numbers are currently estimated at 160,000.