Buffel might be a Southern Elephant Seal from Antarctica but he was actually born in sunny South Africa! And even though he may look very dead, he’s actually just chilling on his favourite beach!
Western Cape, South Africa (03 April 2021) – A Southern Elephant Seal called Buffel took up residence at a beach in Cape Town recently, and even though many reported that they had spotted a dead seal… it turns out he was just chilling.
Luckily Steve Benjamin – the owner of an eco-tour agency – put out an explanation of what Buffel was doing on Llandudno beach… and why he looked so exhausted.
Yesterday, this rare species to our Capetonian shores hauled out on one of Cape Town’s most picturesque beaches, Llandudno.
Many onlookers were concerned about him, but rest assured Buffel is just fine. Sub-antarctic creatures have no natural fear of humans, so they seem calm around us, unlike continental animals. He is not sick or injured and doesn’t need to be chased back into the water. The Llandudno Lifesaving Club had put a barrier around Buffel, giving him his space, and the public were respecting his space. Buffel has just finished his moult and is just looking for a place to rest while his new skin toughens up.
How do I know this? Well, my company, Animal Ocean, has been running seal snorkelling trips to Duiker Island, Houtbay, since 2009. In 2016 we were surprised to find a young Elephant seal resting on the island with our Cape Fur seals. I had never seen a Southern Elephant seal before, a new species to our island.
Southern Elephant seals are normally found in the Southern Ocean, with the closest colony being Marion island, 2147km away from Llandudno. They can weigh up to 4000kgs, dive to 2388m for up to 120 minutes; they are extreme creatures. But this particular Elephant seal, Buffel, was born in Cape Point, son to a lost mother who came ashore, and now believes this is his home.
Buffel was tagged by scientists on Buffelsbay slipway, with a small yellow flipper tag (#16577) so he can be recognised from other elephant seals which may be passing by. Buffel also has some characteristic scaring to his eye and chin. We believe he is blind in his left eye from these wounds. Buffel has been visiting Duiker Island, where I first met him since 2016. He has moulted every year, but the most public beaches have been Fishoek beach and Buffelsbay Beach. He moults somewhere on our coastline every February. Some years he is more secretive than others.
Southern Elephant seals haul out for 1 month each year to moult. This is known as a catastrophic moult when all their skin is shed at the same time. This layer of fur is a fuzzy, light brown colour. The new layer much darker, and the thin layer of fur grows later. Other species moult gradually; think about how your dog continually drops hair around the house. Elephant seals are extreme deep-diving mammals, and their skin is damaged in the process due to decreased blood flow during dives. The seals must haul out and stay ashore for nearly a month, unable to enter the water to feed because of temporary sensitivity to temperature change.
Buffel was reported to be on Olifantsbos beach in Cape Point Nature reserve on the 26th of February 2021, where he was starting his moulting process. I went to try to find him, but he had moved to Dias beach, where he completed his yearly moult. He then moved to Duiker Island, where he was spotted on an Animal Ocean’s seal snorkelling trips. He didn’t stay long and moved to Llandudno yesterday (31st of March).
He has completed his moult and is as skinny as he can get, as he hasn’t eaten in a month! His skin also obviously dark and probably still itchy and sensitive to the cold. The magnificent animal will stay on our beaches for some time, until he is ready to go diving again!
Here are some photos of Buffel’s last beach holiday in 2020 taken by Jean Tresfon – a marine conservation photographer!