I remember seeing my first elephant seal.
I was 15 and visiting the home of the spirit bear on Princess Royal Island when our guide spotted the seal swimming close to the boat that was our home away from home. I was struck by the strange looking sea creature, as well as its size.
More than anything, I wanted to photograph it, but alas darkness was setting in and I had no chance to capture the moment.
Spending very little time on the ocean, much to my dismay, I wondered when I would have another opportunity to observe an elephant seal in the wild. After all, they are animals that spend 80% of their life in the water – and can remain under water, away from prying eyes, for 100 minutes at a time, more than any other non-cetacean.
Little did I know I would have a second shot at photographing this seal species in the most unlikely of places.
When you think of elephant seals, you think size. They’re monsters, weighing upwards of 5000 lbs in the north pacific. You also think of their elephant-like faces. And you probably think of a remote, rocky outcropping as their home.
Almost certainly, when you think elephant seal, you don’t think cities or, more specifically, Vancouver.
I was back home during a three month speaking tour in the spring of 2013 and I was desperate for a little down time; a little quality time with nature.
Unbeknownst to me, a beach in the suburb of West Vancouver had been transformed from suntanning hotspot to one elephant seal’s personal molting station.
Each year, you see, elephant seals go through a “catastrophic” molting phase, when they go ashore for the better part of a month in order to shed their fur. It’s just that it usually happens where the animals mate and give birth – and not on a beach in suburban Vancouver.
One seal’s lost way, is another photographer’s dream come true.
Twice I had the opportunity of visiting Ambleside beach with my mom to photograph the sub-adult elephant seal. And wonderfully, we weren’t alone.
People of all ages were on the beach every day to watch this once-in-a-lifetime event (at least once-in-a-lifetime for Vancouver). The urban seal was bigger than the Vancouver Canucks, the latest food truck debut and the newest fashion trend combined. Nature was hip in Vancouver.
In fairness to the seal, I’m sure it would have preferred not to have been the latest rage for my hometown, especially while undergoing a process that requires the animal to fast for 25 days.
But it was an exceptional learning opportunity. And not just for people experiencing their first taste of the Wild Kingdom.
The elephant seal constantly would use its flippers to cover itself with sand.
It became great fun trying to catch the moment on my camera, but I equally wondered why the seal was doing it.
I learned from discussions with government officials on hand that elephant seals are sensitive to light while they’re molting (which stands to reason) and they use sand, essentially, as a form of sunscreen.
I would have been happy spending every evening with the seal if I could have, but soon I was off to the next stop on my speaking tour and the seal was off to stops unknown.
But the photos and experience of watching one of the world’s most impressive marine mammals – and certainly the most unique urban resident of Vancouver in recent memory – will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Have you checked out our NEW online shop yet?