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Elephant Seals: Our Window To The Ocean

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Documentary Video Transcript: Elephant Seals: Our Window to The Ocean

[outdoor sounds, such as the sound of a stream and birds singing and bees buzzing]

[music]

[Narrator] Every winter in the Bay Area, something strange crawls ashore that has been at sea for many months and has been swimming thousands of miles to breed on the California coastline. Weighing five times more than their female partners, with whom they share little resemblance, the males look like creatures from another planet. And their breeding behavior can seem as alien as their appearance. But as you will see, appearances can be deceiving.

[natural quiet interrupted by a croaking sound, which is the "trumpeting of a bull elephant seal]

[music]

[Sarah Allen] We document the presence and the distribution of elephant seals at Point Reyes by monitoring them annually. We go out and count them, we collaborate with other researchers that study their distribution by putting satellite tags on them, and by studying their interactions with other marine mammals, and other predators, such as white sharks.

When an elephant seal comes in to rest on shore, give birth, or molt, that is where they're most vulnerable to a predator, such as a white shark. And that's where the white sharks reside, is on the periphery of the colony. So, as the animals are coming and going, they're at risk of being eaten by white sharks.

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[Sarah Allen] What is in the deep ocean is part of our discovery of what is Earth. And we have just scratched the surface of the ocean to understand it. We know little about its depth. Elephant seals are that creature that goes to those depths, that travels those distances that we can't. So, to understand them, we have a better understanding of what our world is.

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[Narrator] Elephant seals are our window into the depths of the Pacific Ocean and the health of our marine ecosystems. They provide valuable information on how our oceans are changing over time. They spend the vast majority of their lives at sea, traveling great distances and diving to extreme depths. Their incredible behavior is made possible by their inhuman size and strength, which you must see to believe.

[Sarah Allen] Elephant seals are larger than life. They're up to five thousand pounds for males. Females are about a thousand pounds. They can travel enormous distances, from here to Alaska in the matter of two weeks. They can dive great depths, up to a mile deep, and they can stay underwater for a long time during those dives, almost up to two hours.

So, it has extraordinary capabilities, physiologically and behaviorally. Male elephant seals have a very large nose, which is called the proboscis, and this is used for trumpeting. That's why they're called elephant seals, and it's their way of threatening other males nearby.

[bull elephant seals "trumpeting," which sounds like a deep, guttural croak]

[Sarah Allen] They also have a very large chest shield, and this is made of cornified skin. It protects them when they're fighting from their very large teeth, so it can't penetrate their skin.

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[Sarah Allen] There's an alpha bull, which is the primary male of the harem. The alpha male is usually able to defend about fifty females, so that females can give birth and nurse and rest with their young without being disturbed constantly by fighting males going back and forth.

Female elephant seals are much smaller than the males. They're very torpedo shaped and spindly. They don't have the big nose. They don't have a chest shield. Females, when they're on shore, can fast up to a month. This is when they're with their pup and they come on shore, they give birth within a couple days of arriving on shore, and they stay with their pup for up to thirty days, they wean the pup, and then they leave. So, that whole time they're on shore, they're fasting.

Elephant seals are not fearful people, which gives the indication that they probably did not evolve in the presence of humans. And you see that with island animals, also—that they didn't evolve with human predators, and so they're not fearful of human predators.

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[Narrator] This lack of fear on the part of elephant seals for humans never affected the success of their colonies in the past. However, that changed soon after Europeans began settling the North American West Coast. And elephant seals' fate changed with it.

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[Sarah Allen] Northern elephant seals were probably in the thousands prior to Europeans presence in North America. They were hunted for their blubber. One male elephant seal could yield about twenty gallons of cooking or heating oil. And it became more intensive during the gold rush.

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[Sarah Allen] Elephant seals were thought to be extinct by the late 1800s. And then, in the early 1900s, a very small colony was found on Guadalupe Island. But the numbers were very diminished at that time. When Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962, elephant seals did not exist at Point Reyes. But with the presence of this National Seashore, it created a protected area where elephant seals could get established.

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[Sarah Allen] The northern elephant seal population now is estimated to be over a hundred and fifty thousand, And this is from a population that may have been reduced to just a couple thousand in the turn of the century.

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[Narrator] The dramatic rebound of the elephant seal population in the last one hundred years was no twist of fate. Many people fought for their survival. In 1922, the Mexican government began protecting the remaining few elephant seals on Guadalupe Island. Ten years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt created National Monuments in the Channel Islands which allowed seals to breed there, as well. Then, in 1972, northern elephant seals gained protected status under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, effectively safeguarding them from human harm or harassment while ashore and at sea.

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[Narrator] Once these protections were in place, elephant seals began returning to native breeding grounds, like Point Reyes, and giving birth to lots of pups.

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[Sarah Allen] The elephant seals began coming to Point Reyes in the 1970s. The first pup was born at Point Reyes in 1981. And from that small one pup, one female, one male, we now have over 750 pups in 2008.

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[Sarah Allen] By having these special protections, both a National Seashore and the law that protects them, elephant seals were able to rebound from that depressed level. And you don't find these success stories with very many marine mammal species. By just simple protection, we are enabling a species to recover from near extinction.

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[bull elephant seals "trumpeting," which sounds like a deep, guttural croak]

[Sarah Allen] People should care about the fate of elephant seals because they're our link to the marine ecosystem; the deep marine ecosystem, not the nearshore, but the deep, where few of us travel and we have little understanding of. And yet, our existence on the land is tightly linked to what happens in the deep ocean.

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[Narrator] The more we learn about our planet and ourselves, the more connections we find between habitats and species that would otherwise seem separate. The story of the elephant seal is just one example of how we affect the world around us. As our kind has multiplied and spread across the globe, our actions have grown more consequential.

It is clear by now, that if we are to survive, we cannot do it at the expense of others. That's why it is up to you to take a stand for your world and your future by fighting for the protection of native species and native habitats. It's a small world with a big future, and that future is worth fighting for.

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Description

In the late 1800s, American whalers hunted northern elephant seals to near-extinction. This documentary describes how the resurgence of their population at Point Reyes, and throughout the Pacific, demonstrates the success of marine conservation laws.