Anatomy of a photo #25: Male Elephant Seal

The males use the fleshy nose appendage to help in their raucous calling

I’ve worked with the nearby national seashore for years now, supplying them with images and documenting different projects around the park. Sometimes the park lets me take part in things like the elephant seal count. When this happens, I am actually assisting in the count, but making use of my photographic equipment and talents to help- taking pictures of flipper tags and then zooming in to read the markings, for example.

The picture above is of one of the bull elephant seals. Below I speak about them a little, and give some information on why we can see them in this northern California area, but only during certain times of the year.

This picture was taken using a long lens. While it may be possible to approach an elephant seal, it can also be very dangerous, so I try to keep my distance a little, especially when I am distracted by looking through my lens. I was actually slightly up on a hillside when taking this picture, in a spot where the elephant seals didn’t really have access to me.

The telephoto lens helps to compact things, bring them closer together at times, by keeping distant objects at their relative sizes. If I had taken this picture with a wider lens (and therefore been closer to get the subject bull at this size in the frame of the photograph) the second elephant seal would have been pushed farther away by the perspective the shorter lens gave. Shorter lenses stretch perspective (as does being zoomed out) while longer lenses compress perspective (as does being zoomed in) making objects at times appear closer together.

I was a little above the bull elephant seal when I took this photograph, but I was down as low as I could be, to get more of a side on perspective. I often dislike taking pictures from too far above somethings head, as the angle feels funny and you get a less portrait like result (of course there are exceptions to every rule), so I tried to be as side on for this picture as I could.

I used a fairly shallow depth of field, this way one male is out of focus, the other in focus, drawing the eyes of the viewer much more strongly.

And now for the natural history-

The breeding season for northern elephant seals begins in early winter and extends to early spring, with adults spending the entire cycle—up to three months for males, one month for female— on shore living off their blubber. Starting around November or December, males arrive and begin to vie for dominance. Heaving around bulks of up to 5,000 pounds and “trumpeting” with the help of sounding chambers in their gigantic noses, they engage in what can be bloody and brutal battle. A dominant “alpha” bull will lay claim to an area where the females will gather.

In December and January, pregnant females arrive. They occupy chosen areas above the high tides, in groups of up to several dozen with an “alpha” bull in their midst (second-rank bulls may hold forth on the perimeters). Each female gives birth to a single pup, then protects it for four weeks and transfers 200 to 300 pounds of body weight to her offspring through rich, fatty milk. When the time nears for the young to wean, the female breeds again in order to bear another pup a year later.

Throughout this seasonal cycle, there are scientists observing the colony. They record all the meaningful dates, count the adults and young, and tag the year’s pups as they are weaned. With special permission to approach these federally protected marine mammals, and with specialized skills and sensitivity, biologists

place tags in some of the seals’ flippers, scarcely bothering the animals. Monitoring known individuals in this way yields highly valuable scientific information: how many seals born here will return in subsequent years, which ones move to other colonies, and in some cases where they may show up throughout the North Pacific.

While it is marvelous to watch all the seals’ activity, park visitors must take care to avoid harm—to the seals and to themselves! Not only is it against federal law to disturb marine mammals, it can be dangerous for people and their pets to approach them. While it’s hard to imagine such big hulking creatures posing much of a problem on land, they actually move very quickly over short distances. Unlike other marine mammals that retreat into the water when approached, elephant seal bulls will chase and bite to defend their territory, and females likewise defend their pups.

They won’t always stand their ground though, and therein lies part of the danger to the rest of the seals in the colony. If a bull is displaced from his territory, he will then displace the next weaker male, who will then displace the next in the hierarchy, and this will continue until the numerous younger males are chased all around the beach. The results of such disturbance can be pitched battles between males, as well as chaos in the colony.

Another danger in this scenario is that a pup might become abandoned by its mother as adults flee, or crushed by fighting males. If adults are disturbed too much, they may not return to the same place in following years. People are asked not to approach any seal on the beach too closely and to mind seasonal beach closure signs.

Much of this information was taken from an article I wrote in May, 2009

About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website-
This entry was posted in Anatomy of a photo, elephant seals, ethics, How To, marine life, nature photography, photography, wildlife photography and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Anatomy of a photo #25: Male Elephant Seal

  1. Maggie L R says:

    Great info. The photo is wonderful.
    You are certainly in a great area and have wonderful opportunities to take amazing photos.

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