One of the coolest wildlife encounters we've had occured last weekend with the northern elephant seals at Año Nuevo State Reserve. After a drizzly afternoon spent watching the seals on the beach, we had decided to just sit and relax and watch the ocean for a while. Just as we were considering heading home, since it looked like we were going to get fogged out of a sunset, we noticed that a male elephant seal was in the water along the shore. We watched his progress, and it looked like he was going to attempt to haul out on the same stretch of beach where a large bull was already situated. It's been a dream of mine to photograph an elephant seal battle, so we quickly moved into position to watch the action. The encounter was fantastic, but unforutnately there was no fight. Once the two males squared up, the challenger decided it wasn't worth fighting, and made a hasty retreat back to the water.
I have a series of images with some descriptions from the encounter below, and then at the bottom of this post is the video that my wonderful wife took of the event. You definitely should watch the video, its really awesome to see them in action!
The above image is of the dominant seal as he displayed his might to the newcomer that just came out of the waves. Up to this point, this bull had been pretty quiet all day -- occasionally displaying and making his gurgling sound, but not really interested in moving around all that much. But when he saw the challenger come out of the water, he became much more animated and quickly turned to face the water and pulled up in this fighting posture. Then he took off down the beach, charging at the challenger.
It was really amazing how quickly they moved. When you see these giant slug-like creatures on the beach, you wonder how they could possible move as fast as the rangers tell you. The rule is to stay 25 feet away from the seals at all times in the reserve, and the docents tell you that's because a seal can run faster than you for the first 12.5 feet. I'm sure there's a bit of hyperbole in there, but after witnessing this, it doesn't seem too far fetched.
The dominant bull pulled up in the middle of his sprint (after closign about half of the distance to the challenger) and he again took up an aggressive posture. This is the battle position, where they stand up tall and are ready to swing their necks at each other and bite and tear with those large front teeth. This kind of fighting is how they form those very large chest-shields of scar tissue that you see on the males.
After this mid-sprint display, he again took off and continued charging. One interesting thing that showed up in the still images that we didn't notice in person, is how they really push their entire weight up on their "fingertips." It looks like they are actually doing a pushup with those front flippers, which is pretty amazing since the largest bulls can weight up to 5000 pounds!
This shot is when the two met in the middle. In fact, the challenger did not approach at all during the charge, he just waited for the beachmaster to come to him. They got this close (just far enough away that they couldn't bite) and each bull exhaled a breath of hot air that you can see in the image as they sized each other up. Then, after just a short moment like this, the challenger turned on his tail and ran for the ocean. Their battles are notoriously viscious, and it's no wonder that he didn't want to fight. This is not prime real estate, as there are no females on this beach to take into your harem if you win. This standoff occured on Loser's Beach.
They both moved really fast during this portion of the chase (pretty cool to see in the video!), and in this very unsharp frame, you can see just how high the beachmaster was able to push his body off the ground during his mad dash.
The dominant male pulled up once he was sure that the other was on his way off the beach, and as you can see in the video, he seemed to celebrate with an air of "This is my beach -- anyone else want to mess with me?" The challenging male didn't stop running until he hit the water, and then he slowly moved off over the next 5 minutes or so.
And now, what you've all been waiting for, a video of the action. It took the challenger a short while to come out of the waves and onto the sand, at which point the current beachmaster charged at him. I've shown an abbreviated version of the challenger's approach in the video. After each short burst of motion in his advancement, he would flop back to the ground and wait for a few minutes before starting to move again. It seemed like he didn't want to waste extra energy, but also to size up the bull he was challenging. Enjoy the video, and watch for the dive-bombing pelican in the background at around 5 seconds in!
See more images of these awesome marine mammals in my elephant seals gallery.