Author: Josua Wenzel
Not quite two weeks ago, on the night of the 24th of January, the largest seal species in the world appeared on Fish Hoek beach. A Southern Elephant Seal! This individual, named Buffel, is moulting (shedding his old skin and fur). He will not be able to return to the water before all his old hide has come off and that can take up to 6 weeks. I decided to go to Fish Hoek myself and take a look at this giant on the beach.
Before I tell you about my personal experience with Buffel, I will give you some basic information about the Southern Elephant Seal. They do not usually occur on the South African shoreline. They live quite a bit further south, on the sub Antarctic islands. Buffel probably comes from an island called Marion Island. It is 2100km away from Fish Hoek! You might think that that is extremely far for an animal to swim, but elephant seals are very good swimmers. They can stay underwater for 2 hours and one elephant seal was recorded diving 1500m deep! They do this to catch their prey: fish and squid. Between December and April, Southern Elephant Seals have to moult. They lose their old fur and skin. During this time, they do not eat and live off their fat reserves. Buffel is well-known around the Cape peninsula and has been sighted in many places, such as on Duiker Island in Hout Bay last year. Buffel is a colossal animal. He is 4.2m long and 1200kg heavy! But he is not even grown up yet! He is only nine years old.
When I went to see Buffel this Saturday (3rd of February), he was lying close to the dunes in an area cordoned off with red and white tape and surrounded by a crowd of people watching him. Elephant Seals do not fear humans, but Buffel did seem a little perturbed by the many onlookers. His old brown fur had already peeled off his head, his flippers and part of his stomach but his whole back was still covered with it. Now and again Buffel would throw sand onto his back with his two front flippers, shift his position, open his large, dark eyes, open one or two of his nostrils, breathe heavily through his floppy nose, scratch himself or cough, but for most of the time he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the staring humans, their clicking cameras and their barking dogs. It was a awing sight to see such a massive animal peacefully snoozing on the beach, surrounded by quite small-looking humans.
Buffel might still stay there for a couple more weeks, so if you have got time, go and take a look at him on Fish Hoek beach. But make sure to not to disturb him and remember that he can be quite a dangerous animal if he wants to!
Sources: Department of Environment Affairs and Tourism IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare)
Steve Benjamin from Animal Ocean