You know, I class myself a pretty lucky chap. I’ve had the fortune to get up and close to some of the Earth’s most phenomenal creatures and so I’m not often lost for words when seeing something new. But damn, the sheer size of Buffel took my breath away.
The first I saw of him, from afar, I could see a long gun-metal grey body, four metres in length, and laying there on the beach he looked quite like a merman. Approaching closer I saw large flippers, about the length of my forearm and as wide as my hips. To power these through the water you would need powerful muscles and as my eyes followed the lines of his flippers up, his girth ballooned confidently. I could now appreciate his immense power. At his widest, he is probably the ‘thickness’ of two of me (a man of distinctly average proportions) and at the point of his shoulders his two fore flippers emerge: Massive paddles, each one equal to my width, featuring five anthropomorphous fingers complete with fingernails (ideal for scratching).
His shoulders then narrow down to his thick muscular neck that supports his huge head, so large it would dwarf that of any land predator. His large puppy eyes and snout complete with whiskers remind me of a friendly, familiar dog... but of epic proportions. His mouth features canines as large my thumb and just thinking about the crushing power of his jaws is enough to make anyone shudder… all in all I was standing not one metre away from this four metre, three tonne beast of tremendous power.
But it was okay to be that close, southern elephant seals with their size and power sit at the top of the food chain and they live of a diet of squid, fish and other types of seal - not so much human. They have been known to dive upto depths of up to 2,000m, holding their breath for over two hours at a time. To them we appear as colourful noisy penguins, a slight annoyance but not a threat (or a snack).
It is peculiar to come across an elephant seal on a popular beach on the heavily populated Cape peninsula in South Africa, especially when considering the closest colony is almost 2,000km away on Marion island. It has been considered that he is lost but is actually no stranger to the Cape having been spotted a number of times across the years. This time he has decided that this is where he will moult and will be staying put for 4 to 6 weeks - making him a star attraction for the residents of Fish Hoek.
Every year elephant seals shed their fur and skin, moult, and during this time they will beach themselves and not eat for the duration. He is happy enough just lying there and will return to the seas once his new skin is waterproof enough. Buffel is estimated to be 9 years old and not quite a fully grown adult. I certainly wouldn’t want to come across him in the water, but to see him from a safe running distance was incredible!
Note: At the time of writing, Buffel has finished moulting and has returned to the seas.