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The Verge Review of Animals: the elephant seal

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we’ve written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

In David Foster Wallace's first novel, The Broom of the System, one Norman Bombardini is planning to eat the entire universe, to eat himself into infinity so nothing exists that isn't self. I find it difficult to look at an elephant seal — particularly a large bull — and not see something Bombardini-like. The males can weigh as much as 4,000 pounds (2,500 kg); the females, smaller, are only 1,500 pounds (600 kg).

Elephant seals aren't named for their size. Rather, the males develop noses that kind of look like elephants' trunks. They inflate their noses in order to scare other males away — to mate, they have to fight for dominance. The fights are pretty violent, with the males essentially beating each other with their heads when they aren't biting.

A lot's at stake: one big nasty old male, hulking larger than the rest, will win in the males' battles and mate with the females. No joke — the group of females the most dominant male mates with are called his harem. Smaller, juvenile males will withdraw to less stressful grounds to recuperate after these matches. But there are other males always willing to try the dominant male — he'll have to fight daily if he intends to keep his harem.

Elephant seals spend 80 percent of their time at seaThe main times you're likely to see elephant seals are after the females give birth to their pups and during mating season. Otherwise, these creatures spend about 80 percent of their time at sea. Well, if I moved like that on land, I'd probably prefer the sea too; I feel only sympathy watching these hulking, massive creatures shlep themselves around on land, especially when they're so graceful in the water.

Elephant seals are deep divers — which is why they have those big, soulful eyes. The better to see you with, my dear. They dive for as long as two hours, spending only three to five minutes at the surface before returning to the depths. The average dive is about half an hour, and reaches 1,000 feet (305 meters) to 2,000 feet (610 meters). The pressure at those depths are enormous; seals collapse their lungs and slow their heart rate to only four to 15 beats a minute. And what are they doing down there? Hunting cephalopods, though they also eat sharks and skates. This is their whole summer and fall; during that time, they may travel as many as 12,000 miles, though male and female feeding grounds are different. (The males go to the Aleutian Islands; the females, to Hawaii.) They eat continuously while they journey, and don't appear to sleep. They are, instead, attempting to put as many ocean creatures as possible in their bellies.

TThey eat continuously while they journey here's a reason for that: elephant seals don't eat while they're ashore. The pups are born at around 75 pounds, and nurse for 28 days, during which they gain about 10 pounds a day. Then, their mothers mate and disappear to the sea. The pups hang on the beaches, learning to swim and hunt for the next two months. At four to six months, they get a silvery coat — and eventually head into the ocean depths themselves. It'll still be years before they reach maturity.

All that caloric intake forms elephant seal blubber, once valued as a source of oil. The elephant seal is a success story; they were hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1800s for that valuable blubber; by 1892, only 50 to 100 of them were left. First the Mexican and then the US government granted the massive mammals protected status — and since then, their numbers have recovered. The population is now about 150,000.

Though massive, they are also pretty gentle. Really, not much messes with an elephant seal. They go about their business harmlessly, gently, but make no mistake: they do what they want. Like Bombardini, they've discovered mass is a a tremendous show of power. Which means that if, say, an elephant seal wants to cross a road — even the smaller female, rather than a full-grown male — it's very difficult to dissuade her.

Correction: This review initially omitted "a day" from the 10 pounds a day elephant seal pups gain while nursing (!!!!). Elephant seal pups gain 10 pounds a day while they nurse, not 10 pounds total. We regret the error.

The Elephant Seal

Verge Score: 7.1

7.1

Verge Score

Good Stuff

  • Big, pretty eyes

  • Fairly chill

  • Good appetite

Bad Stuff

  • Very clumsy on land

  • Nasty fights

  • Huge old gross males are really the best you can do, mating-wise?