NEWPORT — Last week, a young northern elephant seal showed up at South Beach State Park and took up transient residence in the pathway to the ocean from the South Jetty parking lot.
The pinnipeds are not unheard of on Lincoln County shores, but they’re a much less common sight than their cousins, harbor seals and sea lions. Elephant seals live most of their lives in deeper waters offshore — they are extraordinary divers — and they are more often seen near shore in areas where they breed and birth in Mexico and California. But they also haul out year round at Cape Arago near Coos Bay.
The South Beach visitor that was first spotted on Thursday has relocated by dozens of yards several times since then.
The animal doesn’t seem to be having a good time. Passersby encounter it mostly motionless in the sand, except for when it raises its head for a guttural moan in protest of being disturbed, and large patches of hair are missing all over its body.
Jim Rice, stranding program manager for the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, said it’s normal behavior for what the seal is currently going through — catastrophic molting.
Unlike most mammals, including other pinnipeds, Elephant seals shed their fur and skin all at once annually during a one- to two-week period.
“To accommodate the molt, they come out of the water, they stop eating, and they basically look miserable for the duration of the molting process,” Rice said. “But once they’re done with it, they have a new coat of fur and new skin, and they look a whole lot healthier. But it is a stressful period they go through.”
And while the seal has chosen an inconvenient spot, Rice said it’s important for the public to avoid disturbing it, and not allow their pets to do so, either.
“It’s ironic, he or she — I haven’t had the chance to determine the animal’s sex — really doesn’t want to be close to people. Unfortunately, these animals don’t have a very good sense of distancing. They come to shore where they feel like it,” Rice said.
Signs have been placed along the path on the approach to the seal’s location warning of its presence and the need to respect its privacy (“Keep at least 50 yards away,” the signs read.) The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits harassment of elephant seals, which the law defines as “acts that have the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.” More importantly, Rice said, the South Beach visitor is vulnerable to stress during an already stressful period.
“They don’t have a great means of defense. They can’t flee very easily. They will growl. This animal is quite alert and vocal and does not like to be approached,” Rice said. “We definitely want to minimize the amount of approaches that people have to seals and sea lions, and elephant seals are no exception. The molting process is a stressful period, and if they’re constantly having to be vigilant for potential threats, that’s going to increase their stress level and suppress their immune systems to some degree, and it may make them more susceptible to infections or complications of the molt itself.”
There’s also a risk of violent encounters between the seal and pets — dog walkers in the area should be especially advised to keep their animals on leash. “We’ve had dogs bite seals and cause injuries, and seals can bite dogs and cause them injuries and potentially spread diseases to them,” Rice said. “There’s a risk of injury and infection when you’re encountering a wild animal of any kind.”
Rice said he’s hopeful the seal will return to the water soon — on Tuesday, it moved several yards closer to the ocean after days of incremental inland progress. He said it appears to be a juvenile.
Northern elephant seals have a sandy brown colored coat with no spots, differentiating them from harbor seals. Males can grow to 12 feet in length and weigh over 4,000 pounds, while females are smaller, approximately 9 feet long and about 900 pounds full grown. They range along the Pacific coast from Mexico to Canada.