Wildlife cruise itineraries cover destinations as diverse as the Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, South America, Scandinavia, the Arctic and regions throughout the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. For nature lovers, travelling by sea provides a wealth of opportunities to explore some of the world’s greatest unspoilt wilderness areas that, in some cases, can only be reached by water.
One of the myriad species that may be encountered on a wildlife cruise is the largest of the world’s seals: the Southern Elephant Seal.
The World’s Largest Seal
There are two species of Elephant Seals: the southern and the northern. The northern species, Mirounga angustirostris, is found in the waters of Baja California and California, while the southern species, Mirounga leonine, can be found in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic waters.
Mirounga leonine is the larger of the two species, with males reaching proportions of up to 6m from end to end, and weighing up to a mammoth 3900kg. Despite their size appearing the obvious reason, their name actually comes from the male’s trunk-like inflatable proboscis (which develops fully on maturity, at around 7-8 years).
The seals are characterised by their broad torpedo-shaped body, with short front flippers used for steering and webbed rear flippers that provide a powerful propellant through the water. Their anatomy affords them the ability to dive to depths of 1500m and stay down for anything up to two hours. Because their webbed rear flippers are not able to rotate forward, when they come ashore they must drag them, giving them their distinctive ungainly, lumbering gait.
The Battle of the Bulls
One of the most striking behaviours of the species is the very physical and vocal battles for power between the bulls during the winter breeding season. Each bull marks a territory in the rookery and gathers a harem of up to 50 females, which they defend in a show of impressive and intimidating strength. In the showdown for dominance they emit vociferous roaring through their proboscis, along with challenging shows of aggression that quite often turn into prolonged, thrashing and extremely violent battles. Competition for territories is so fierce that the bulls don’t eat during breeding season, relying on their reserves of blubber to sustain them.
Elephant Seals on Film
The excellent BBC series Blue Planet II, hosted by Sir David Attenborough, features the Southern Elephant Seal on the Antarctic island of South Georgia, which some of the best wildlife cruise itineraries visit. Shot at the height of the breeding season, the documentary captures not only the dramatic clashes of the bulls as they vie for mating rights in the colony, but also remarkable, breath-holding footage of king penguins picking their way through a beach of sleeping giants to the ocean. The penguins’ challenge is to reach the water without becoming collateral damage in the seals’ on-going duels for power.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience
A wildlife cruise to the Falklands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula takes in the spectacular area in which Blue Planet II filmed the memorable sequence above. This once â€“in-a-lifetime experience offers a privileged insight into the wildlife and grandeur of this truly majestic landscape.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in marine species. For nature lovers interested in dedicated wildlife cruise itineraries, Marissa recommends the tours organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of species in one of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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