If you go down to the beach today, you’re sure of a big surprise…
Fiona McIntosh went for a stroll on Fish Hoek beach and discovered an unexpected visitor: a huge southern elephant seal called Buffel has taken up temporary residence.
A crowd had gathered on the beach near the Fish Hoek Beach Sports Club. As I approached I saw that an area was roughly cordoned off on all but the water side. By sheer luck Deon Koetze and a team from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), along with Dr Alison Kock, marine biologist at SANParks, were there erecting signage and informing beach goers about Buffel, a massive southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) that lay just above the high water mark.
A Regular Visitor
Deon was more than happy to tell me about Buffel and how this was not his first time visiting the Cape’s beaches. Buffel was seen for the first time in South Africa on 23 November 2014, at Buffels Bay in the Cape of Good Hope Reserve, hence his name. The DEA marked him with a flipper tag, (number 16577), on 26 November, 2014 in order to help with future identification. Buffel is male and the DEA team estimated his age at the time of tagging to be two years. Since then he has visited our shores annually and landed at Hermanus, Betty’s Bay, Cape of Good Hope, Olifantsbos, Scarborough, Kommetjie, Llundudno, Duikerklip Island and Paternoster.
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Southern elephant seals like Buffel appear to be tame, but this is not the case so don’t be fooled. It is merely that they don’t know humans, therefore they are not scared of us; we look like oversized penguins to them.
Time For a New Hairdo
In late January 2019, Buffel started his annual moult. During this period he will remain on land as he loses all his old hair. He does not need to feed during this time as he relies on his fat reserves, and he will seldom go for a swim as he does not need to be wet, so there no need to pour water over him. This ‘catastrophic’ moult can take up to a month, so Buffel might stay on Fish Hoek until the end of February.
It’s a privilege to have this visitor on the beach, and well worth going to check Buffel out. But please respect him. The best thing we humans can do is to enjoy him from a distance. Keep the noise down and your dogs and children at bay around Buffel and allow him to complete the moult in peace.
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The Elephant seal that was with us on Duiker Island, Houtbay, has now moved to Fish Hoek beach. The seal, that was named Buffel, after it was tagged in Buffelsbay, Cape Point. Its super relaxed and doesn’t see humans or dogs as a threat. If you are in the are, please leave the seal alone. He is healthy and will return to the sea when ready. Southern Elephant seals are capable of diving to over 2000m for 20 mins !! #sealsofinstagram #sealsnorkeling #oceananimal #fishhoek #capetown
Facts About Elephant Seals
- According to Dr Kock, penguins also undergo these ‘catastrophic’ moults. Like elephant seals, they cannot go to sea at all while they moult, and during this time they fast until their new feathers are grown and they are again waterproof.
- Elephant seals breed on sub-Antarctic islands like South Georgia and the Prince Edward Islands from September to November each year. They feed predominantly on fish and squid and are known to dive to immense depths in search of food.
- Elephant seals are so called not because of their size, but because of their bulbous, trunk-like snouts.
- Southern elephant seals, along with other seals, sea lions and walruses, are pinnipeds, which means fin- or flipper-footed.
- Southern elephant seals are vast compared with our local Cape fur seals. The average weight of a female Cape fur seal is around 60kg, while that of an average elephant seal female is 400 to 900kg – and this is pretty small when compared to their male counterparts. According to the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute, which has been conducting marine mammal research at Marion Island for more than three decades, southern elephant seals are the largest living seal species and are among the world’s most sexually dimorphic mammals. Adult males tip the scales at between 3 000 and 4 000 kilograms – up to 10 times the weight of an average adult female.
- They are distributed in the Southern Ocean region between 35 and 70 degrees south and ‘haul out’ two, or even three, times per year onto sub-Antarctic islands and mainland sites on the coasts of Argentina and Antarctica to breed and moult.
Read more about Buffel, and snorkelling with seals by visiting Animal Ocean.
Words Fiona McIntosh
Photography Fiona McIntosh; DEA