You are in a Zodiac and the highly anticipated moment of your first step ashore on South Georgia is fast approaching. As the objects on land become clearer in your view, you realize they are moving. The landscape is alive. Your Zodiac pulls up to a sandy beach and you disembark. Before you is a phalanx of restless animal bodies, some rotund and blubbery, some sleek and furry. Your eye is drawn to a gigantic figure looming commandingly over the throng. A sonorous, gurgling bellow is heard above the din of groans and howls. “That’s the beachmaster,” the expedition leader says. “Stay clear of him!” This imposing fellow is the first of many huge elephant seals you will see on your Antarctic cruise to South Georgia.
Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina), affectionately known as “blubber slugs”, are phocids (earless or true seals) and are the largest of all marine mammals besides whales. A large male, up to five meters long and weighing as much as four tonnes, is twice as massive as a male walrus, the largest seal in the Arctic. Dominant bulls (males) are easily recognized by their enormous size and grotesque proboscis. Cows (females) are much smaller, reaching only three meters in length and weighing up to 900 kilograms.
Every summer on South Georgia, around 400,000 elephant seals haul their massive bodies onto land to mate, give birth and raise their pups. Some beaches are so crowded with elephant seals that they are more blubber than sand. The first to arrive are the dominant bulls in early September, followed a couple weeks later by the cows. The largest bulls, called beachmasters, take control of harems of about 70 cows, the breeding rights to which they constantly defend from rival bulls. Fighting is often fierce as roaring bulls slash each other with sharp teeth, drawing blood and shredding flesh. Such battles, witnessed mostly in early summer, are spectacular to watch but also extremely hazardous for bystanders who get too close.
Cows give birth in October and suckle their woolly pups for up to 25 days. The weaned pups, called weaners, stay on the beach for another few weeks before going to sea. By early January, all the pups have gone. In late summer, molting adults can be found piled together in muddy pits called wallows, where they marinate for weeks while waiting for their new coats to grow. The overpowering stench of these wallows has given elephant seals the reputation of being the only animal that smells better dead than alive.
To a visitor in South Georgia, elephant seals are masters of the beach. But actually, they are masters of the deep ocean. Southern elephant seals are among the longest and deepest diving mammals in the world. Transmitters have recorded dives going deeper than 1500 meters and lasting up to two hours. Considering they spend 10 months of the year at sea and only a few minutes at the surface between dives, elephant seals actually spend the vast majority of their lives alone in the abyssal depths of the ocean, where they hunt for fish and squid under tremendous pressures in total darkness.
Elephant seals are not the only beachmasters on South Georgia. Starting in November, the beaches are invaded by an estimated three million Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella). These are South Georgia’s only otariid (eared seal). They are distinguished from other seals by their luxuriant fur coats and external ear flaps. Large bulls, weighing around 200 kilograms, are tiny compared to elephant seals. However, their lack of bulk is compensated by their aggressiveness. Dominant bulls, also called beachmasters, furiously defend their mating territories against other bulls and humans alike. Vicious fights between bulls can lead to the deaths of both combatants. Visitors are warned to stay well clear of these aggressive males during the breeding season, from November until mid-January. After this time, territorial bulls are replaced by younger males.
After giving birth and mating, female fur seals alternate their time between foraging at sea and suckling their pups on shore for the remainder of the summer season. Cows returning from foraging trips have a remarkable ability to hear their own pups amid the cacophony of thousands of rambunctious seals. Late summer is a great time to encounter mobs of curious fur seal pups scampering around the beaches and tussocks of South Georgia.
Two other seals found in South Georgia are the leopard seal and Weddell seal. Fearsome leopard seals (Hydrurga leptonyx) do not breed in South Georgia but visit in summer to prey on penguins and krill. A small population of peaceful Weddell seals (Leptonychotes weddellii) breeds on the island and they can occasionally be seen reposing on beaches.