Almost extinct, now moulting on Fish Hoek beach
The Southern Elephant Seal called Buffel is back - and showing the local dogs who is boss
Visitors to Fish Hoek Beach in Cape Town would be forgiven for thinking a terrible crime had just taken place: there is barrier tape cordoning off an area, a crowd of onlookers craning their necks, and even a seemingly lifeless body lying in the sand.
But in reality, a beautiful male Southern Elephant Seal is currently moulting there, lying still on the beach and intermittently using his flipper to spread more sand on his skin.
His name is Buffel and according to the department of environmental affairs and tourism, “Buffel is 4.2m long and weighs around 1,200kg. He is probably about nine years old.”
He will be considered a fully grown adult at 10 years old.
“Buffel is healthy and the authorities know about him. He was tagged in 2014 and since then has regularly come ashore around Cape Town,” said Steve Benjamin from Animal Ocean.
He was given the name Buffel because he was first spotted in the Buffel Bay section of Cape Point.
Buffel spent three months at Duiker Island in Hout Bay in 2018, and in previous years was seen in Betty’s Bay, Scarborough, Kommetjie and other places.
Like others of his ilk, he appears lethargic and harmless, but can be very dangerous if disturbed. On Sunday last week, while the crowd left a large space around him, a pet dog went too close to him and in a split second Buffel went from basking in the sun to raising his head, opening his mouth menacingly, and letting out a sound with a message that was loud and clear: “Back off, hound.”
What many of the onlookers snapping pictures of him might not realise is that Buffel belongs to a species that was just about wiped out by the end of last century.
Southern Elephant Seals are enormous – by far the largest in the seal family. They have a proboscis that looks like an elephant trunk (hence the name), very large eyes and small flippers, and the population was rigorously hunted all through the 19th and 20th centuries. Even up until the mid-1960s, their blubber was harvested and made into oil.
Thanks to conservation efforts, however, the population is now back up to 700,000, according to Travelwild Expeditions.
They usually moult with their colonies, but it appears Buffel got separated from his community a few years ago and the rest of them moult near Marion Island almost 2,000km away. But, like the rest of his pack, he is “fasting” at the moment, living off his blubber while his skin slowly sheds.
Once moulting ends, Southern Elephant Seals venture back into the water, diving down (for reasons not yet known) to about 600m. There have been cases recorded of Southern Elephant Seals diving 2km.
Benjamin asked that all who visit Buffel at Fish Hoek “take care of him by reducing noise”, and not stand close because he could also be dangerous if he feels threatened.
“Buffel will return to the ocean when he is ready,” said Benjamin.
He will probably be around until the end of February.