Elephant seals at Davis

Scarred and moulting bull elephant seals lying on Davis beach.
Scarred and moulting bull elephant seals lying on Davis beach. (Photo: J Smith)
Elephant seals doze while ship/shore cargo operations continue behind them.Two elephant seals play-fighting in the shallows.

8 March 2003

In late summer and autumn, Davis beach becomes the temporary abode of some magnificent though malodorous beasts: bull elephant seals.

The first ones haul out in January but generally for only a few hours, sometimes laboriously dragging themselves on short tours of the station before returning to the sea. During February they come to stay, and in March their numbers peak at a hundred or more. The last one usually departs around the last day of April, by which time the sea has frozen and a long drag of several kilometres across the ice is necessary to reach the open sea.

The beach is only about a hundred and fifty metres long. Most of the seals lie in rows and groups just above high tide line. A smaller group, generally including the largest animals, occupies a brown, stinking hollow behind the beach, just downhill form out operations building. More pull out on other beaches up and down the coast.

They come to moult their old skin, and grow a new one, in an annual renewal of their bristly coats. They do not breed here. It is rare for cows to appear here: they go to moult at the breeding beaches, on Heard Island, or the French Indian Ocean archipelago of Kerguelen. We get just the bulls, mostly sub-adults nearly at their full size although the occasional small youngster comes with them. Many bear healed scars on their necks sustained in battles fought with other bulls on the breeding beaches.

They fight here too, but only in play. Especially in the early morning, and particularly if there is a cold wind blowing snow around their corpulent bodies, they get frisky. Several enter the water where they tend to pair up in mock battles. Each raises its head as high as it can in front of the other, then brings it forward in a heavy blow against the opponent's neck. In earnest on the breeding beaches, this would be a very heavy blow indeed, with teeth bared, causing gashes and bleeding.

Here it is more gentle. Nevertheless, the seals can look pretty fearsome, and they sound it too. Their inflatable noses allow them to make surprisingly loud, resonating roars which can be heard even through the double, insulated walls of the living quarters. The noise can keep awake people who sleep in the summer accommodation containers closest to the beach.

The seals are up to 4 metres long and 3 tonnes in weight. Although they are not very agile on land, we give them a wide berth, keeping at least 5 metres away to avoid disturbing them. They are a popular photographic subject on sunny days, and provide endless entertainment for as long as you can stand the chill of the Antarctic wind. Most lie dozing, but there is usually one restless seal which disturbs its neighbours, who then move and disturb their neighbours, and so on.

Perhaps what impresses human observers most, apart from their sheer bulk, is the smell. They give off a powerful odour, partly a body smell but compounded by their own bodily wastes that they lie and roll in. Some people find the smell unpleasant, even overpowering, but to me it's a reminder of other wonderful places where I have met elephant seals, on Macquarie Island and Heard Island.

Sadly, their numbers are dropping, not just at Davis but globally. Numbers fluctuate from year to year at Davis but overall there is a steady decline, just as has also been documented at Macquarie Island and in the south Atlantic. Nobody is quite sure why, but it is something to do with marine conditions and the seals' food supply of fish and squid. The whole question is the topic of on-going research programs, including by biologists at the University of Tasmania and the Australian Antarctic Division working at Macquarie Island in particular.