Marine Matters – by Phil Coulthard – Operations Manager & Marine Biologist, Dolphin Discovery Centre
As featured in the South Western Times
Did anyone get a chance to see the giant seal that spent a week or two resting along our south west coast recently? The two tonne monster was in fact a rare Southern Elephant Seal who caused quite a stir when he was spotted minding his own business on the shoreline of our metropolitan and South West beaches. Named after the large proboscis (nose) of the adult males which resembles the trunk of an elephant, the young sub-adult male would have traveled over 2000 km over the past 100 days or so in search of food and understandably needed some beach time to rest and recover. Unlike their smaller and more agile sea lion cousins who frequent our coastline, Elephant Seals are big and cumbersome on land and rarely spend a lot of time on the shore. They are instead superb swimmers and divers, preferring to spend most of their time searching for food alone in the deep southern oceans, often diving up to two kilometres deep and holding their breath under water for over two hours at a time in search of fish and squid.
Affectionately known as “Steven Sealberg” thanks to the amount of attention and paparazzi action he attracted during his visit, the reluctant superstar must have soon realised he had made a terrible error of judgement once he landed on Sorrento Beach that first day. Wanting nothing more than a few quiet weeks away from the hustle and bustle of the busy southern ocean, can you imagine his disappointed to find thousands of annoying humans constantly disturbing him with noise, movement, camera flashes and even the occasional body slap. Thankfully, Stephen was a little too exhausted to show any true emotion otherwise a number of people may have been on the receiving end of a nasty bite for being too close to what experts describe as an incredibly dangerous wild animal.
Having to constantly escape the disturbance, Steven moved several times over the week, eventually landing for the final time on Meelup beach here in our south west. It was here where this/a frightening image of a young boy being placed next to him for a photo by his parents almost ended in tragedy, more so for Steven than for the little boy. As a mere gesture of annoyance, Steven was caught on film opening his mouth and swinging his head in the direction of the child, a movement which looked very much like a vicious attack and one that may well have resulted in Steven having to be managed as an unacceptable public risk. Fortunately the boy was able to make a teary escape without injury and Steven too departed the scene before things got out of hand, hopefully finding another beach further south where he can complete his critical period of rest before travelling back towards his likely breeding population stationed either on Macquarie or Heard Islands near Antarctica.
Should anyone come across Steven or any of his relatives it would be very advisable to keep your distance and respect the fact they are there for a reason. Most importantly, make sure you call the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPAW) Wildcare Helpline on 9474 9055. A Marine Wildlife of Southern WA Identification Guide is also available for download from www.dpaw.wa.gov.au/marinewildlife.