Seal Baby Snot

Phyllis, an elephant seal pup, gets weighed at the Marine Mammal Center in Marin, CA. Once she gains enough weight she will be released back into the ocean.

“Elephant seal pups are very snotty animals.”

The stranding team at the Marine Mammal Center in Marin spends a lot of time with concerned members of the public on the phone explaining this. “They just normally have a lot of mucus. They’re suppoooosed to sound like that.”

Recently one caller to the center hotline, (415) 289-SEAL, insisted that the seal he was looking at was not acting normally. “I know seals and this one isn’t right. I’m poking him with a stick and he’s not really doing anything.” The center had to send someone out to not only make this man stopping poking the seal but to convince him in person, that the elephant seal was okay.

Sometimes, though, you need to put a seal in a wheelbarrow. It is usually for their own good. You will be trying to weigh them (ie. weighing the wheelbarrow first and then weighing the seal in the wheelbarrow and then subtracting the weight of the wheelbarrow, which is roughly half a kilo in case you’re curious) to find out if they’re doing better than they were the week before. The whole time they will look at you with their big pool-ball eyes (which ooze mucus out the sides because they’re somewhat dehydrated) and it will be with a mixture of curiosity and resignation. The ratio depends on the seal pup. Before and after they are weighed…and also before and after they eat, or when they are angry or annoyed, and perhaps even when they’re excited…they will make a lot of noise.

Volunteers at the Center do mostly hard work (pen cleaning, fish milkshake making and dish washing). But occasionally you get to do something else. Like this.

An elephant seal pup, especially a young one, sounds like a chicken with a head cold. Only sea lions sound like cartoon seals with the AHR-AHR-AHR bark. Elephant seal pups squawk and when they’re not squawking they quietly regard you as if they don’t care. But I think they do. A long-time volunteer at the Center told me that they are much faster than they seem. They certainly are a lot more than they seem. And by this I mean they are like aliens visiting us from a planet we can’t ever hope to visit without a space ship. Except that the planet they’re visiting from is ours. When Phyllis grows up she will spend roughly 6 minutes of every day at the surface of the ocean (long enough only to breathe). The rest of the time she will be thousands of feet below, often as deep as 5,000 feet. She will come back onto land only to mate and give birth and molt. The rest of the time she will be far, far out in the open ocean, up to eight thousand kilometers from shore.

Phyllis is at the hospital in Marin because she is too skinny. And she hasn’t taught herself how to fish yet. I hope she will be okay. She does come from a long line of survivors.

Once, hundreds of thousands of Northern elephant seals lived in the Pacific Ocean. But in the 1800s they were slaughtered for the oil that could be made from their blubber. By 1892, there were only 50-100 seals left. They lived on Guadalupe Island off of Baja, California. But after their legal protection in the 1920s they’ve slowly rebounded. Here a mother gives birth.

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