Snuffy Comes Ashore | William Thomas Online | William Thomas

Snuffy Comes Ashore

Snuffy -Will Thomas photo


by William Thomas


Three worried humans stand at a respectful distance eying the imposing bulk of a Very Large sea critter that has somehow crawled out of the Miocene onto Big Trib beach. The tide's way out and the drag marks of this 3,000 pound animal resemble a newly laid bulldozer track emerging from the Salish Sea.

That XXXL waistband and prominent probosces identify a bull. But is this giant elephant seal dead, dying or just taking a nap? As with any inert alien life form, it's hard to tell. But slight movements of the rib cage reassure us that “he” is still breathing.

Is M. Angustirostris really Snuffleupagus? Resident on nearby Flora Island long enough to have acquired this lengthy local moniker, “Snuffy” half-lifts an eye and snuffles something I can't quite catch.

This isn't mating season, so what is this gigantic seal doing ashore? Elephant seals prefer to spend most of their time underwater, far out at sea. Though most dives average 20 minutes and reach 980 to 1,970 feet, determined hunters can stay submerged for 100 minutes. Two years ago, a female Northern elephant seal was snapped by a candid camera “slurping up” a Pacific hagfish from the ocean floor 2,933 feet down. Two minutes after surfacing, elephant seals dive again. And again. And again. 24/7.

A unique characteristic of deep-diving Northern elephant seals like Snuffy is their ability to store extra oxygenated red blood cells in the spleen. Each year between April and August, elephant seals come ashore to molt. So the month is right. Is that bright orange-and-green crust around the flukes and ventral slit molt, mange or malady? Snuffy isn't saying.

According to the authoritative Ranger Rick magazine, Northern elephant seals range from Baja California into the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands. While the much smaller and perpetually smiling cows prefer Hawaiian holidays, the northernmost breeding ground of all Northern elephant seals is on Race Rocks just outside Victoria.

-Will Thomas photo

Amorous elephant seals prefer to make out on remote trysting spots. An Alpha male servicing his harem is able to impregnate up to 50 females in one brief mating season – a good thing since he chases off other bulls. During his lifetime, a single seagoing superstud can sire more than 500 pups.

The pregnant cow delivers a single offspring around Christmastime. By then, the bulls have been challenging each other over paternity rights during more than a month of bellowing, bluster and Sumo-style shoving matches. Their magnificent megaphones double as a “rebreather”, reabsorbing moisture from each land-bound exhalation. This is vital during mating season, when bulls do not leave the beach for up to 100 days. 

The fasting males lose 1/3 of their body weight, as do the moms, who stay ashore providing enough mammalian milk to grow a 70 pound infant into a 250-pound “Baby Huey” in just 28 days. After moms and dads have earthshaking sex and go their separate hungry ways, displaced “weaners” drop 80 pounds teaching themselves how to hunt.

Longtime Hornby residents remember the last sighting of an elephant seal on Big Trib “back in the hippy days”. Since the maximum life expectancy of a bull is just 14 years (8 years less than females), “Snuffy” cannot be the original animal. Around 18 months ago, an elephant seal reportedly came ashore for a week “around the corner” from Flora at Grassy Point. Probably this same solitary bull. But without proper name tags it's impossible for amateur beachcombers to tell such rare visitors apart.

-Will Thomas photo

For nearly a week, Snuffy (II or III) became a local celebrity. Remarkably tolerant of us Lilliputians, the hugely indolent animal mostly ignored our exclamations and speculations, goggling children, ecstatic dogs and shaky selfies.

“Just because elephant seals are big doesn't mean they won't move quickly,” U.S. National Park Service biologist Sarah Allen told SF Gate. “On beach sand, a bull can charge faster than I can run. They may appear docile. But they're very unpredictable. Everyone who works with them has to undergo intensive safety training.”

The person who tried to “pet” this beast out on Flora must've missed the safety briefing. Like the excited Irish setter and a taunting tourist who got way too close on Big Trib, he only got huffed at.

But eight years ago, a displaced, testosterone-challenged California teen earned the nickname “Nibbles” after nipping the leg of a surfer who wiped out and fell onto this 2,500-pound fellow wave-rider. (Happily for both, the only trauma was internal.) According to local press reports, the “rogue” elephant seal next proceeded to “run rampant”, killing a dozen harbour seals before coming out of the water “like a torpedo” to nip an elderly pit bull chasing a thrown stick. Ignoring a quarter-size puncture wound, the doughty dog “squared off” with its ultimate nightmare before being rescued by her minder.

“It's the third time I know of that something like this has happened with elephant seal bulls in the last 10 years,” said wildlife biologist Joe Cordaro.

But humans are far more dangerous predators. Thought to have been hunted to extinction by 1884, and subsequently protected by Mexican and Norte Americano laws, the numbers of oil-rich sea elephants have recovered to more than 100,000 today.

Some are here to help. Ranger Rick reports how computer-equipped Southern elephant seals diving a thousand feet beneath the Antarctic sea ice are sending back depth, salinity and water temperature data from this otherwise inaccessible realm. The seals don't appear to mind wearing the sensors, which are jettisoned when they molt.

Their ominous lesson? The Southern Ocean is warming even faster than carbon-clogged seas elsewhere.

Though “Snuffy” is now safely off the beach, ocean warming remains a serious threat to all sea dwellers. With the 1997-98 El Niño blamed for the starvation deaths of 80% of that year's elephant seal pups, intensifying and more frequent El Niño events, warming and acidifying seas, and the threat of nonstop tarsands tanker traffic may make last week's sighting an even more precious memory.

-Will Thomas photo


“RESIST MUCH, OBEY LITTLE”   发件人     William Thomas 2023