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Encounter with a Sea Elephant

Farallon Islands, 1968

Malcolm Coulter, PhD

A Farallon Island view. Photo by Annie Schmidt / PRBO
This “field note” looks back in time 44 years, when one of PRBO’s first biologists—and the recipient of PRBO’s 2012 Conservation Achievement Award—was investigating Farallon Island wildlife.—Editor

During my first trip to Southeast Farallon Island, in 1968, there were just six elephant seals present on the island. (I prefer to call them by their old-fashioned common name “sea elephants.”) Now, hundreds of them use beaches on the Farallones during their breeding season.

This species’ recovery is a great success story for pinnipeds—the seals and sea lions. Northern elephant seals were hunted intensively for their fat, and by the early 1900s there were only about 12 of them left, on Guadalupe Island off Baja California. After they were protected, they rebounded rapidly.

In 1968, the six young animals on Southeast Farallon were hauled out on a beach; they slept all day. I walked down to look at them. I was a naïve young biologist; I walked even closer.

I didn’t realize that, whereas a horizontal animal was not a threat, a vertical animal (pushed up on its foreflippers) definitely could be. I was too close, and one reached out and bit me. It could have wrapped my entire leg with its large mouth, but it didn’t. Instead, two of its teeth cut my right calf. I stepped away and out of reach, said a few choice words that didn’t faze the seal but which I probably shouldn’t repeat, and walked back to the house.
A young northern elephant seal. Photo by Mike Baird

The Coast Guard, then in charge of the island, called for a helicopter to take me 29 miles to a hospital in San Francisco. They kept asking why my colleague Dr. Riseborough wouldn’t patch me up. He’s a biochemist, and the best scientist I have ever known, but not the right kind of doctor for a “sea elephant” bite!

After the appropriate medical treatment, and back on campus (where I got nicknamed Sea Elephant), I didn’t think much about this. But a bit of broadcast news got reported across the country, so my family and friends called with their concern and laughter. My sister, an artist, even made an etching—of elephant seals and “sea elephants,” complete with long trunks!