Photo: Pacific Underwater: Would you abandon your month-old child in February? Elephant seals do!

A cluster of elephant seal weaners on a shore. (Credit: Michael Porter via Flickr)

By Kat Middleton, Western Region Science and Policy Intern

Many regard northern elephant seals as one of the ugliest animals in the world. But only the male has an elongated, unsightly nose that produces astonishingly loud roars during mating season. And it's not just the trunk-like snout that earns its name; weighing up to 3,500 kilograms, a bull northern elephant seal is bigger than a male polar bear.

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In contrast, females and their young are so cute they're attracting international attention. On January 13, a large female named Bertha (whom I lovingly call Big Bertha) birthed her pup—the first northern elephant seal of the year—while people around the world watched on the Race Rocks Ecological Reserve live webcam.

Race Rocks (AKA XwaYeN — pronounced "shwai'yen" — Klallum for "fast flowing water") was established in 1980 to protect the huge number of marine species that rely on the area's productive ocean environment, including sea lions, porpoises, killer whales, grey whales, octopuses, sponges, barnacles and nesting colonies of migratory seabirds.

Every year — from December to March, from California to British Columbia — adult elephant seals come ashore to breed and mate. Race Rocks, 17 kilometres southwest of Victoria, B.C., is the only Canadian elephant seal rookery.

For approximately 28 days, Big Bertha will supply rich fatty milk to help her youngster grow an average of 4.5 kilograms a day! Soon she'll abruptly wean and abandon the pup, heading off to mate with one or more males, then returning to the ocean to feed for the first time since coming ashore. Once a pup is off its mother's milk, biologists call it a "weaner". For the next two months, Big Bertha's weaner will have to fend for itself, and independently learn how to swim and eat in preparation for life at sea.

That any of this still happens at all is amazing. Northern elephant seals were hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century. They've only returned to Canada in the last 10 years. The first pup was born at Race Rocks in 2009. In 1910, the population was estimated at 100 individuals. Determined conservationists pushed to protect key habitat, which allowed numbers to rebound to about 130,000 — clearly illustrating the importance of marine protected areas.

Canada's northern elephant seals and the diverse range of marine species on the B.C. coast need our government to safeguard more ecologically sensitive areas like Race Rocks. Only one per cent of Canada's oceans are currently protected. Bertha and her pup deserve more from us.

Thanks to the Race Rocks eco-guardians and wardens, who provide daily updates, including photos, videos, and biological data — so we can enjoy watching Big Bertha and her growing pup!

Help us protect the coast by becoming an Ocean Keeper »

February 25, 2014

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