Elephants Of Antarctica

Freeze Frame: Sights, Sounds And Science From The Bottom Of The World: NPR science producer Jason Orfanon guest blogs as he journeys to the Antarctic Peninsula. Keep up with him on Twitter at @jorfanon. And view the whole series page.

By Jason Orfanon

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    A young female elephant seal makes itself at home on Palmer Station's boat ramp.
    Dan Whiteley
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    A group of young male elephant seals bask in the mud and snow on Amsler Island, Antarctica.
    Jason Orfanon/NPR
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    This young male elephant seal is probably not ready to breed yet. His small proboscis (or nose) will likely grow larger as he matures.
    Jason Orfanon/NPR
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    There are several colonies of elephant seals near Palmer Station. This one is on a small island called Elephant Rock.
    Jason Orfanon/NPR

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Listen to the mellifluous sound of elephant seals breathing (i.e., snoring). (Audio courtesy of Cheryl Leonard)



A few weeks before I got to Palmer Station, a young female elephant seal took up residence on the station's boat ramp. Folks did their best to steer clear of her, but her arrival definitely made life difficult for the boating coordinator (between elephant seals on his ramp, penguins on the pier, and leopard seals chewing on his boats, the guy can't get a break around here). But, as this photo shows, she was cute — we're talking Disney cute — so that made her a tolerable addition to the Palmer community.

Fully grown, elephant seals — or "ellies" as they're known around camp — can weigh up to 6,000 pounds. For comparison, that's about twice the weight of a Toyota Prius. They get their name not only from their massive size but also because of the male's trunklike proboscis. A bull's bulbous schnoz amplifies his bellowing and advertises his virility. And it pays off — during breeding season, an ample-trunked male can have a harem of 50 females or more.

These giants patrol the waters around Palmer looking for food, usually squid and fish. After getting their fill, they drag their heavy bodies onto land and lounge around in the sun for a few days. Then, when they get hungry, they head back to the water and repeat the process.

On nearby Amsler Island, we came across a group of young males that probably aren't old enough to breed yet. I felt almost embarrassed for them and their puny proboscises. As they lay together in a pile on the snow and mud, the sound of their breathing filled the afternoon air. Have you ever shared a room with a snorer? That's what they sounded like ... only a few thousand pounds heavier.

We watched them for some time, and then motored back to the station. We didn't have any trouble docking — Palmer's cute little elephant seal had moved on weeks ago, much to the relief of the boating coordinator. Life had returned to normal — but as I'm learning, normal is a relative term around here.

View more photos by following Jason on Twitter: @jorfanon.

A snowy sheathbill looks for a meal.

A snowy sheathbill, sometimes called an "Antarctic chicken," looks for a meal. (Jason Orfanon/NPR) hide caption

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