Southern Elephant Seals don’t often fight. There’s a lot of posturing, bellowing and chasing but it’s usually pretty clear who the dominant male is. When they do fight though it is absolutely brutal as they stand up well over 6ft tall and then slam into each other, ripping out chunks of flesh and blubber, turning the water around them red.
After walking to St Andrews and Hound Bays looking for ellie scraps this one happened outside station when I was in the kitchen. It lasted long enough for me to run and grab my camera, then run again and grab a longer lens.
There are video clips of this fight in the video section (in the KEP highlights rather than the ellie fight video oddly enough).
Location: King Edward Point, Cumberland Bay, South Georgia. Date: 8th November 2017. Camera: Canon 7D with 300mm Canon lens. 1/500 sec, f/5.6, ISO 100.
Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) hang around Bird Island in small numbers over winter, outside of the breeding season. Used to a beach made up of mud and stones, at this time of year they get to see it covered in ice and snow.
They're a joy to watch as they push themselves along on their bellies, sliding and rolling around in it like they haven't a care in the world.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 24th May 2014 Camera: Canon 7D with 300mm Canon lens. 1/500sec, f/5.6, ISO 400.
Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) pup getting its first experience of snow. The pups are weaned by their mothers for about four months but left alone within the first week as she heads to sea to feed. As they grow they start to spend this time exploring and play-fighting with their cohorts rather than sleeping, but those first few occasions without mother and with strange new weather must be very confusing.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 1st December 2015. Camera: Canon 7D with 300mm Canon lens. 1/100 sec, f/4.0, ISO 200.
Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) pups are born with fluffy black fur that moults away within a couple of months, leaving them with this sleek silver-grey layer of fur. By this time they have roughly doubled their birth weight and started exploring their surroundings.
Newly-born pups roll around chewing on their own flippers. Those a little older struggle up and down the beach on theirs. When you see the freshly moulted pups entering the water for the first time it is like they have just realised what they were born for; swimming. They speed round and round the rock pools and shallow bays; chasing and fighting each other and bits of seaweed, leaping clear of the water. It seems a joyous expression of freedom.
They're wary but curious at that age, coming over to investigate anything new to their environment but ready to turn and flee if it moves unexpectedly.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 28th February 2016. Camera: GoPro Hero4 Black on a long pole. 1/500 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100.
Around 1 in 500 Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) are born blonde due to a recessive gene. As there are very few natural predators once the seals get beyond pup age (just the odd rogue leopard seal or orca) this doesn't seem to affect their development a great deal and you regularly get blonde adults, both male and female, on the beaches.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 4th February 2015. Camera: Canon 7D with 300mm Canon lens. 1/1000sec, f/4.0, ISO 200.
Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are uncommon around South Georgia, mainly visiting in winter when they haul out on the beaches in between feeding on penguins and smaller seals in the water.
The dark spots that give rise to their name are unique to each individual so part of our work is to build up a photographic record of all the leopard seals that come ashore so they can be identified in subsequent seasons.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 28th May 2013. Camera: Canon 7D with 50mm Canon lens. 1/250 sec, f/10, ISO 400.
This large male Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) slept through a blizzard that caused us to retreat indoors. As it was quite a damp day (even in winter the humidity on Bird Island is usually over 90%) the snow stuck to his fur, decorating him like a cheap christmas tree.
Taken on 1st August 2013 using a Canon 7D with 300mm Canon lens. 1/400sec, f/32, ISO 200.
Leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) are uncommon visitors to South Georgia, mainly arriving during winter. Individuals can be identified through their unique pattern of spots but this one, Max, has a distinctive rectangular scar in the centre of his back that make identification even easier.
We don't know how this wound was caused but when we first saw it it was fresh and bleeding. In subsequent years it has started to heal, though still causes problems - the ubiquitous snowy sheathbills will always have a peck at anything they think they can eat (from faeces to metal) and whenever Max was lying on his side they would repeatedly walk over and have a go at the exposed flesh.
One felt sorry for this huge seal, unable to get any rest and not quick enough on land to be a genuine threat to the sheathbills. This photo was taken at what looked like a moment of sheer frustration when he rolled over, twisting like a serpent and bared his huge jaws and teeth after one peck too many.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 21st July 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with 300mm Canon lens. 1/320 sec, f/4.0, ISO 100.
Not quite a happy southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) family as the female has become separated from her pup by an amorous male. Unlike the big harems on the South Georgia mainland where males have a relatively small territory, bordered by other territories and angry males, on Bird Island males of this size are quite rare and there is nothing to prevent them entering a low-speed pursuit of any potentially available females.
The female seals usually make an effort to get away. This looks like sheer unwillingness to copulate (elephant seal sex is pretty brutal) and in many situations this may be the case. But it is similar to fur seal behaviour and a more interesting explanation is one of sexual selection:
Seal pregnancy is a long, arduous and dangerous business. To make it worth it (ie. to give her the best chances of passing on her genes through the generations) she needs to mate with the best possible partner. By continually trying to escape and put up a fight she can avoid the weaker males and find one that is big, strong and fast.
Some studies have found that only 1% of male elephant seals ever get the chance to mate, such is the ferocity of competition. If her son is to be among them he needs the best start in life - a set of genes that has already proved successful. Competition between females for breeding does not appear to be an issue, but a daughter who is stronger and faster will stand a better chance of evading weak males and ending up with the best male on the beach. And the cycle goes on.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 13th October 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with 300mm Canon lens. 1/500 sec, f/5.0, ISO 640.
Although southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) breed on South Georgia in huge numbers it is rare to get more than a handful of pups on Bird Island.
This is a shame as they're beautiful and hilarious creatures, their gorilla-like faces and wide eyes staring round in confusion at a beach full of adult fur seals, many of whom they are soon the same size as. They are sucked for three to four weeks, at the end of which they weigh around 180kg.
This pup was born before the main arrival of fur seals so had the beach to herself, sleeping and rolling round scratching when her mum went off to feed.
Location: Bird Island, South Georgia. Date: 16th October 2014. Camera: Canon 7D with 70-200mm Sigma lens @ 200mm. 1/250 sec, f/2.8, ISO 100.
By October Male Southern Elephant Seals are getting pretty territorial about their harems. Beachmasters can have over 100 females and need to be constantly alert to other males challenging them or trying to steal in at the edge of the colony when they’re not looking.
This guy was making a lot of noise at the edge of one harem, but as soon as the big male started making his way over he turned and ran back into the sea.
Location: St Andrews Bay, South Georgia. Date: 4th October 2017. Camera: Canon 7D with 17-70mm Sigma lens @ 63mm. 1/250 sec, f/7.1, ISO 100.