Elephant seal Elsie Mae teaches, inspires during molting haulout - Salish Current
September 22, 2023
Elephant seal Elsie Mae teaches, inspires during molting haulout
Richard Arlin Walker

The “soulful eyes” of an elephant seal who hauled out near the Guemes Island ferry terminal and on the island from June 16 to July 29 captivated many who saw her. The animal — federally protected from human hunting — shows very little fear of humans; both an opportunity to observe fairly closely but a challenge in keeping her safe. (Phil Sorensen photo © 2023)

September 22, 2023
Elephant seal Elsie Mae teaches, inspires during molting haulout
Richard Arlin Walker

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Children crowded a railing along the Guemes Island Ferry passenger waiting area and pointed excitedly toward a figure on the beach.

One visitor was moved to tears. “She’s so beautiful,” she said … “I want to cry.”

A young woman, mourning the death of her fiancé, found healing in the figure’s presence and was inspired to write a poem. 

Photographers documented her moves and moods and created postcards, calendars and a book.

Their object of interest was a 1,500-pound northern elephant seal known as Elsie Mae — so named by volunteers with the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network. The marine mammal captivated onlookers during her 27-day stay on Kiwanis Beach in Anacortes and on Guemes Island. She hauled out here on June 16 for her annual molt, shedding an old layer of fur and skin for a new layer that will keep her warm during the time she’ll spend in the Pacific Ocean. 

Elsie Mae’s presence provided onlookers an opportunity to closely observe a marine mammal that spends much of the year in the ocean between Washington and Oregon, diving down to 1,500 feet to hunt octopus, squid, bottom fish and small sharks. She’ll dive down to 3,000 feet to avoid orcas and great white sharks, her chief predators.

Her presence also created challenges — and educational opportunities — for stranding network volunteers.

Not only is Elsie Mae is a three-quarter ton wild animal, but she is also a federally protected marine mammal, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) flipper tag number 1285. According to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, harassing her by intentionally approaching or annoying her or causing her harm could result in a sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to $100,000. 

Stranding network volunteers set up a perimeter with traffic cones and posted a sign warning visitors to keep their distance. Volunteers were stationed at the beach from dawn to dark. 

Here’s what people learned from Elsie Mae.

Leave wild animals alone

Elsie Mae has shown no fear of humans in her five years of life. Stranding network volunteers believe members of a wedding party on Orcas Island fed her when she was a pup and had hauled out nearby on the beach. Since then, her curiosity has led her to the parking lot of Old Salt’s Deli and Market in Skyline on Fidalgo Island, onto a beachfront deck in the same neighborhood and to the door of an RV.

An elephant seal takes up quite a bit of lawn at this residence on Guemes Island’s West Beach. (Phil Sorensen photo © 2023)

“It’s behavior like I’ve never heard of,” stranding network volunteer coordinator Garry Heinrich said in an earlier interview. “She doesn’t have a great fear of humans.”

And that poses risks to her and to humans. She can get injured in a parking lot or on a wooden deck that cannot support her weight. Although accustomed to human presence, she’s a large, strong, fast-moving wild animal. Once, a seemingly intoxicated man ignored volunteers and walked onto the beach. Elsie Mae, largely hidden by a large log, raised her head and made a growl-like sound as if warning the man of her presence. He quickly retreated. 

During an earlier sojourn in Skyline, she seemed annoyed by the sound a kite made and went after it, said Phil Sorensen, a stranding network volunteer and retired educator. “She didn’t like it at all,” he said. “We had to intervene.” 

Intelligent, curious, with a great memory

She swims thousands of miles and dives thousands of feet to feed and avoid predators, and she remembers the sound of a metal sign that volunteers used in 2020 to get her to move off a parking lot in Skyline. When she started to move off the beach and toward the parking lot at the Guemes Island Ferry landing, a stranding network volunteer needed only to hold up a metal sign and Elsie Mae turned around and moved back to her haulout spot. 

Once her molt was completed, Elsie Mae left Kiwanis Park and hauled out for about 10 days on Mark and Brenda Trombly’s lawn on the west side of Guemes Island, going into the water periodically in preparation for her return to the ocean. Brenda Trombly said Elsie Mae explored neighboring beaches, played with mooring buoys and picked up her grandson’s red boots that had been left on the lawn and tossed them into the air, as if playing with them.

“She’s very friendly,” Trombly said. “She’s a little too acclimated to people. She likes people and gets attached to people.” 

A beautiful animal with personality

Onlookers were wowed when she awakened from a nap and looked at them with big dark eyes that more than one visitor described as soulful. She yawned, raised her rear flippers in a yoga-like stretch, scooted to the water for a swim, then returned to the beach to nap in anticipation of the beginning of her molt. 

“Her personality starts with her eyes,” Sorensen said. “A lot of people commented on the beautiful eyes she has. One visitor, a school teacher from Chicago, said he could not take his eyes off of her. He was fascinated by her physical presence and her beautiful eyes.”

Carl Yanagawa, a stranding network volunteer, added, “The way she looks at you and the way she moves have a lot to do with why people feel a connection. For a wild animal to be so close to people and not be afraid — those are some interesting characteristics that make her so likeable.” 

A conservation success story

Elsie Mae is descended from a population of northern elephant seals that originated on Guadalupe Island, Baja California, Mexico. Northern elephant seals were once hunted to the brink of extinction, primarily for their blubber, which was used for lamp oil. By 1910, the Guadalupe Island population numbered about 100 and was the last remaining population, according to the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco, California. 

Thanks to protections imposed by the Mexican and U.S. governments, the northern elephant seal population today is estimated at about 150,000 — 124,000 of which live in California waters — “and is probably near the size it was before they were over-hunted,” the Marine Mammal Center reported.

Crowded rookeries may be a reason northern elephant seals are establishing breeding populations in this region, Sorensen said. 

Elsie Mae’s mother, nicknamed Ellie, established the new breeding population on Whidbey Island and gave birth to four pups between 2015 and 2021, the stranding network reported. “Until recently, northern elephant seals rookeries have spanned from Baja California, Mexico, to [the] central coast of California. There is even a small rookery of elephant seals with pups at the south end of Vancouver Island. These births represent a northward expansion of reproductive haulout areas for the northern elephant seal.” 

Elsie Mae was Ellie’s second pup, born on March 10, 2018, on Whidbey Island. Elsie Mae gave birth to a male pup, nicknamed Emerson, on Jan. 21, 2022, at Bowman Bay, Deception Pass State Park. Sorensen said it’s not known whether Elsie Mae has given birth to other pups.

Still threatened

 Life in the open ocean is not without its dangers. While Elsie Mae no longer has to worry about being hunted by humans, she has to avoid pollution, derelict fishing nets and ships, in addition to orcas and great white sharks.

Her molt tells something about the conditions of the marine environment in which she lives. Stranding network volunteers collected and bagged her shed skin and fur because skin and fir been found to contain high levels of mercury — enough to potentially poison any animal that might eat it. 

Human-caused “emissions have increased global atmospheric mercury deposition to the oceans three- to fivefold since preindustrial times,” according to an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America.

Northern elephant seals accumulate mercury from their diet during their time at sea and in turn pass that mercury contamination on through their excrement and molt. “The potential for this top-down contamination is greatest in coastal areas with productive marine ecosystems that provide ideal habitats for large marine mammal colonies that can number in the thousands,” the article states.

Northern elephant seals are not the only ocean inhabitants showing high concentrations of mercury. Fish that are predatory and at the top of the food chain tend to contain more mercury. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, fish with the highest concentrations of mercury include king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish and albacore and yellowfin tuna.  

For its part, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strengthened its regulations to reduce the amount of mercury emitted into the air and discharged into water. Tougher regulations related to the incinerating of municipal waste — done to reduce the volume that is buried in a landfill — reduced mercury emissions by 88% since 1990, the EPA reported. Regulations are also ending the use of mercury in such products such as lightbulbs.  

Returning in February?

Since the elephant seal headed out to the Pacific, “Everybody seems to miss her now,” Yanagawa said of Elsie Mae. 

She’ll spend three months in the ocean feeding on squid, then will haul out and rest for a couple of weeks, Sorensen said. She’ll haul out to give birth in January or February, then return to sea in about 28 days after her pup is weaned. She’ll haul out again between April and June to molt. Then, the cycle will begin again. 

According to NOAA, the life span of a northern elephant seal is 13–19 years; that means Elsie Mae could be part of the community until 2037.

Sorensen said the community will be the richer for it.

“She’s taught us so much about herself and her species,” Sorensen said. “People who got to know her really saw her presence as quite a gift, as an opportunity to learn. Numerous people visited the beach one, two, three times a day. It was a whole different experience with her being there.”

Want to be part of the solution? Learn more about the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network — and volunteer.

— Reported by Richard Arlin Walker

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