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THE BLOG

Seals and Sea Lions: Animal Planet on the Looney Front, Part 5

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seals and sea lions are "second cousins," composing together with walruses the three families of pinnipeds (fin-footed in Latin).
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Although many know seals and sea lions more as great circus performers, in their natural state in the wild - that is when they haven't been conned by great dollops of fish in captivity into jumping through flaming hoops, waving their flippers, and shading their eyes in shame - these marine mammals range over much of the globe's oceans, with a particular fondness for the Antarctic.

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According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), seals and sea lions are "second cousins," composing together with walruses the three families of pinnipeds (fin-footed in Latin).

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They both have winsome doggy faces and big soulful eyes, the major difference being that sea lions come in various shades of brown, bark loudly, walk on all four flippers and have visible ear flaps, while seals - grey, black, brown, white or mottled - are equipped with smaller flippers, wriggle on their bellies on land, and lack visible ear flaps.

Sea lions are also more gregarious, congregating in groups called herds or rafts of up to 1,500 or more.

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Pinnipeds' closest living relatives, apparently, are bears, weasels, raccoons, skunks and red pandas, from whom they branched off way back up the genealogical tree some 50 million years ago.

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And this is a relative?

The largest pinniped of all is the southern elephant seal, with males growing up to 16 feet long and weighing three metric tons, sometimes reaching 20 feet and weighing nearly four tons.

So let's begin with the biggest:

Elephant Seal

The species gets its name because he - since only the bull has one - is endowed with a humongous flappy, fleshy proboscis resembling a truncated elephant's trunk, with which he can produce a magnificent trumpet voluntary of exemplarily loud roars, especially during mating season (don't we all!)

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He can blow into this Jimmy Durante nose and inflate it into an elongated balloon-like appendage. But it's more than just musical and ornamental. Its cavities reabsorb moisture from exhalation, essential in the mating season when he doesn't leave the beach to feed and must conserve liquid.

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Cow elephant seals are much smaller, generally about 10 feet long and weighing just under a metric tons. The northern version is smaller in both the male and female lines.

An excellent spot for sightings - that is once you've already gone through the hassle of getting to one of the remotest places on Earth - is Carcass Island, to the northwest of the main Falkland group off the tip of South America.

The island got its off-putting name from HMS Carcass, which surveyed it in 1766. It's very picturesque with virtually no trees, three mountains of up to about 1,000 feet, plenty of stony ridges, and tough tussock grass on the moorlands. With its many bays and islands on the horizon, it could be part of the Scottish Hebrides.

Carcass Island
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At the far north-west point there's a beach full of huge elephant seals. They rear up and open their huge pink mouths, swaying, going for each other, belching, snorting, inflated noses filled with snot, harrumphing, farting in all keys, major and minor, flat and sharp, and letting off multi-odiferous pongs.

It's just like Britain's House of Commons at Prime Minister's question time - a symphony of sounds, sights and smells that immediately recalls a board meeting of your favourite company/organisation (Now come on everyone, fill in the blank!).

A parliament of elephant seals on Carcass Island

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On Sea Lion Island, to the south-east of the main Falklands, amid the army of sea lions that give it its name, you'll find a parliament of farting elephant seals, too. I say there, will the right honourable gentleman from Dorking South please shut his snout!

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Your Regular Neighbourhood Seal

Of course that depends which 'hood you come from. But if you happen to be swanning around Antarctica, as my wife Rivka and I on an Antarctic cruise, you're in for a great show since they have a predilection for southern waters.

Our first glimpse comes in the South Shetlands just off the Antarctic Peninsula - giant glacier-covered crags matterhorning up everywhere - where we land on rocky Aitcho Island in massive rubber boots and burstingly fat insulated jackets and trousers amid nosey squawking penguins who waddle up to check us out.

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Now what's that large black and red penguin doing over there? Ah it´s Rivka, executing a majestic pas de deux and landing flat on her back on the ice amid a humongous layer of penguin poop, almost as catastrophically spectacular as a fellow cruiser closer to the water who manages to inflate her emergency life-vest as she bites the ice.

But we do see a couple of swaying fur seals with beautiful doggy faces. Rivka - ever the Mother Teresa of the animal world - wants to adopt them and take them back to New York.

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On Deception Island, through Neptune´s Bellows - a Lord of the Rings-type scene of soaring volcanic cliffs granting narrow access into the caldera where steam rises from boiling water bubbling up at the edge of the freezing sea - Rivka wants to adopt a couple of penguins now, too, and take them back to New York - while I get chased by a randy seal who just won´t give up.

Deception Island

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Even worse, a Canadian couple asks me to the film them as they strip down and rush in for a polar bear dip by the steaming/freezing waters. Of course I've no idea what to do, press the wrong button and screw up the whole operation, garnering grimaces icier than the frigid continent itself from the dripping/freezing couple for what was meant to document the highlight of their trip.

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Sailing through the spectacular Lemaire Channel, its impossibly jagged peaks soaring up on either side, sometimes only a few hundred metres apart, we pass leopard seals basking on ice floes.

One gets a tad amorous with our rubber zodiac as we make for an island landing, giving it little love bites, or rather dirty great chomps with its huge long canines, deflating several panels. We finally escapes Cupid´s embraces but the zodiac needs some urgent patching.

Lemaire Channel

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Zigging and zagging in a zodiac between the glorious blue icebergs and rock channels of the Melchior Islands, a fellow cruiser hauls out of her bag a dirty great bottle of Southern Comfort and cups - Southern Comfort a few hundred miles from the South Pole amid merriment and hiccups as the seals look on, bemused.

Melchior Islands

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Sea Lions

Their range extends from the Antarctic to the Arctic via a variety of tropical waters, but here we'll deal with the denizens of the southern seas.

On rocky islets in the Beagle Channel, off Ushuaia on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego, they bask in their hundreds against a spectacular background of jagged snow-capped mountains silhouetted above stunningly blue waters.

Beagle Channel

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You'll find them, too, lounging around and swaying below the 90-foot cliffs on the rocky shores of their eponymous island in the Falklands.

Sea Lion Island

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Moving up into the tropics they range all over the Galapagos. On Lobos Island, baby sea lion pups bleat and waddle amid marine iguanas while Rivka and Yours Truly re-enact the decline and fall of the Roman Empire on the slippery rocks.


Lobos Island

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On Española, geologically the oldest of the Galapagos, we land amid wall-to-wall parents and pups, beach-master males roaring to restore order in their harems of 30 or more as male challengers approach.

Española Island

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On Floreana, they bask on a huge full-moon shore backed by low green growth and conical volcanic peaks. On North Seymour a young sea lion makes for me across the landing rocks, flippers moving furiously, jaws snapping like castanets, barking madly. Shoo, Rover, Shoo!

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Down boy!

But shoo he won't as his mouth fast approaches my leg. I back away smartly, very smartly, knocking a fellow tourist into a particularly spikey cactus.

And on the strikingly red sands of Rábida, pups are bleating all over the place, while a Norwegian tourist goes snorkelling with all his clothes on. Rivka asks him what he does for a living. Ah, that fits - he's a psychiatrist.

Rábida Island

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Royal Command Performances

Hudson Bay seals swimming over a glass enclosed tunnel in Assiniboine Zoo, Winnipeg
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Performing sea lions at the Sea Aquarium, Curaçao

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[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Animal Planet on the Looney Front - Those Mini-Dinosaurs, Iguanas]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.