Wow! What an incredible few months it has been. At the start of September the beaches around station were occupied by just a handful of large male elephant seals. Throughout October the number of elephant seals on the beaches exploded, to the point where there were harems (or groups of females) that spanned 10–20 metres wide and over 100 metres long! Now, there are only a few breeding females left on the beaches, with most having returned to sea, leaving a whole lot of weaners (pups) scattered across the beaches and station.
On the 8th of September we had the arrival of the first elephant seal pup — what a great privilege it was to have witnessed an ele seal birth! Soon after, on the 18th of September, we commenced the elephant seal census. This census has one main objective: to determine the number of breeding females on the island this year. Macquarie Island has over 90 kilometres of coastline, so this is not an easy task!
In 2005 a method was developed to achieve the aim using the resources at hand. Basically, we count the females on particular beaches near station on a weekly basis to establish when females are coming ashore to pup and then at the time of the peak of pupping we count a large subset of beaches around the island. It was still a large task to complete, but many hands on station made it achievable. We were also fortunate to have pretty good weather conditions on most days we were scheduled to count the seals. It also helps that the seals are incredibly endearing: look at those big, dark eyes and puppy–like skin rolls!
The results of the census have just come in!
This year over 9000 breeding females were recorded in the census area. That means 2016 is the second consecutive year that we have recorded an increase in the number of females within the annual census area. While these are great results, further work is required to determine whether these results are indicative of a change to the long term average population decline of ~ 2.5%, or an indication of annual variability.
The annual census will continue over the next few years and a whole-of-island census will be attempted in 2019. For now we will continue to enjoy the company of the many weaners on station and their curious behaviour.