Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) are the largest of all seals with males reaching 4-5 m in length and 3 500 kg in weight. Females are much smaller at 2-3 m in length and only 500 kg in weight. Southern elephant seals are coloured rusty grey-brown and are covered with thick blubber. Mature males have a large 'trunk', or proboscis which is used to amplify their vocalisations and, together with their bulk, gives rise to their name 'elephant' seal. They often appear cumbersome and indifferent to humans yet, despite their awkwardness, the speed with which they can move their bulk makes them potentially dangerous if harassed.
Southern elephant seals are the deepest diving seal in the world. Females have been recorded diving as deep as 1600m with dive durations of up to two hours.
Their diet consists mainly of squid. Southern elephant seals once bred in Tasmania on King Island but were wiped out by the sealing industry. At present, the closest breeding area of elephant seals is Macquarie Island. Here, there is an estimated population of 76,000 animals. However, the population is declining at a rate of 2.5% per annum.
Each year in Tasmania an average of twelve elephant seals are reported. The age of the animals visiting our shores varies from yearling animals (one year old) to animals of 22 or more years of age.
There are nine records of southern elephant seal pups born in Tasmania between 1985-2022, of which five are known to have successfully weaned. A male seal born in Salem Bay in 2020 was tagged on each tail flipper just prior to weaning and has been sighted at a number of locations in southern Tasmania since then. This seal, known as 'Neil the seal' within the Tasmanian community, regularly hauls out in human-populated areas and may interact with people.
Elephant seals come ashore to rest and moult after spending extended periods foraging at open sea. They may remain ashore for periods of up to 4 to 5 weeks and should not be disturbed during this time. Seals can be dangerous if approached and they may become habituated to people which compromises their long-term survival.
What you can do to help protect southern elephant seals in Tasmania:
- Report southern elephant seal sightings to the Whale Hotline (0427 WHALES)
- Do not disturb southern elephant seals resting ashore.
- Keep a 20m distance from seals and control dogs on a lead 50m away from seals.