At Walker Bay in the South Shetland Islands, we didn’t just see cute one-month old Southern elephant seal pups sleeping and lazing around. There were also a bunch of youngsters that were somewhat older than the weaners given their double to triple sizes. These guys were much more active, wobbling around and getting at each other repeatedly.
As a result, we observed a number of fights where youngsters, and even some weaners, were getting at each other, presumably to test their strength, to show others who’s boss, and to shape the overall social structure within the group. During their noisy fights, they roared and grunted at each other quite loudly, before smashing their bulky bodies into each other with their heads held up high. Oftentimes, as the battles unfolded, we witnessed fierce displays of open-mouthed threats, body slams, and surprisingly agile maneuvers as these youngsters tried to establish dominance.
Some of them had bloody streaks, bite marks and scars on their backs indicating that this wasn’t just all play but rather a critical practice for life as an adult seal and for survival in the harsh Antarctic environment.
It was quite the impressive to watch these fights from a close distance and hearing these loud roars. Their fights never lasted for more than 5-10 minutes but occasionally seemed intense. Afterwards, they would both go their separate ways again and rest or find someone else to fight with. Luckily, the youngsters were just focussing on each other and not caring much for our presence.
We observed all this right at the beach, close to the water. But further back, about 150 meters away from the pups, and higher up in the mountains, there was the rest of the large elephant seal harem. Maybe two dozen adult seals, presumably mostly females, were resting, moving over each other, and making lots of grunting noises. For good reasons, we stayed at a large distance from them. While they were not interested in the pups or actually protecting them, we did not want to cause any disruption to their business, or have them become too curious about us. Male Southern elephant seals are impressively large (4-6 meters, up to 3500 kg) and can be rather fast on land, especially when feeling the need to protect their ladies.
Seeing these seals fight to prepare themselves for a successful future helped me remember that sometimes we have to take a stand — especially when it comes to something as important as the survival of our planet. Because in doing nothing, someone else, or something else, will take over. All we are left with then is to watch as our opportunities to actively help shape our future slip away — a potential unrealized — and the world being taken over by forces beyond our control. Inaction only leads to a passive surrender of the very agency that could have propelled us towards a brighter future.