The elephant seal breeding season has started on Macquarie Island, a Nature Reserve and World Heritage Area located about halfway between Australia and Antarctica in the Southern Ocean.
Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) are the largest seal species in the world. They are named after the large proboscis (nose) of the adult males, which is used to make loud roaring sounds, especially during the breeding season.
Another beachmaster contender having a sleep on the isthmus
Photo: Andrea Turbett
The largest males are called beachmasters. They spend most of their lives at sea but are currently hauling out onto the island’s beaches in preparation for the breeding season and to wait for the females (cows) to arrive.
The beachmasters who successfully defend their territory until the end of the breeding season in early November will not leave to find food during this time and will have to rely on their energy reserves while also fighting challengers and pursuing their cows. There are a lot of beachmasters strategically resting around the station before they claim some territory on the beach. Macquarie Island’s humans are in awe of the enormous creatures.
Southern elephant seals are a threatened species that are protected under Tasmanian and Australian legislation and are listed as vulnerable. Annual monitoring has shown the island’s population is experiencing a slow decline.
Although it is difficult to understand the reasons for the population decline, it is likely that the foraging habitat of the population is being impacted by changes to Antarctic sea ice extent due to climate change.
Each year on Threatened Species Day on 7 September, the Macquarie Island team participates in the Threatened Species Bake Off to help raise awareness of the plight of southern elephant seals.
The rangers and Leo the Beachmaster Cake
This year cake sculptors Urs, Jarrod and Andrea created “Leo”, a tribute to the enormous nostril-flaring beachmasters who have recently returned to Macca’s beaches. Creating a giant cake tribute to the beachmasters has become a Macquarie Island tradition.
The cake was surprisingly edible considering it was made without eggs or butter – an attempt to avoid wasting limited island supplies that were brought when the team arrived back in March. Macquarie Island expeditioners appeared to be fairly dubious while the cake sculpture was being constructed, though they were very impressed when they saw the final masterpiece.
Leo the Beachmaster cake at Garden Cove
Photo: Jarrod Hodgson
Story and images contributed by Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Services Andrea and Jarrod.