In June 2013, an elephant seal washed up at Southbroom in KZN. We responded to the call from Ezemvelo, our local Wildlife Organisation, for assistance. This would be the first hands-on experience our current seal team would have with a true seal.
The young male seal clearly needed assistance and was transported to uShaka Sea World. We named him Selso which was short for (Southern Elephant Seal – Southbroom)
On arrival at uShaka Sea World, Selso weighed 73kgs. He weighed less than half of what he should have weighed as a 22 month old seal. Healthy southern elephant seals are fat and sausage shaped. This little seal was so thin that we observed a distinct head, neck and torso.
We allowed him time to rest and adjust to his new surroundings before treatment started. The uShaka Sea World animal care staff, led by resident vet, Caryl Knox, liaised with other vets and scientists both internationally and locally to ensure they were able to offer him the best possible chance of recovery.
Training techniques were adopted to encourage him to eat. Within 5 attempts spanning 2 days, he voluntarily ate a 1kg diet consisting of pilchards, squid and hake. His behaviour was observed by a staff 24hours a day. Please see video below of feeding and some enrichment.
In August 2013, representatives from The Department of Environmental Affairs, The University of Pretoria, and BayWorld, all whom have vast experience in marine mammal management and elephant seals, met with the uShaka Sea World Animal Care team to discuss Selso’s future. After a great deal of discussion it was decided that the best option for Selso would be for him to be released once he had achieved his target goal weight of 180kgs and had completed his moult.
Each year, southern elephant seals moult. In this process they shed hair and outer layers of skin in large patches. A moult can take from
3 to 6 weeks to complete. When moulting occurs, the seal is susceptible to the cold water, and must haul out onto land. For the duration of the moult elephant seals do not feed and live off their fat reserves. We faced a challenge with Selso in that he needed to moult, but he still had a weight deficit to recover. Selso’s food intake dropped from 12kgs to 9kgs per day. The moult took 11 weeks to complete and in that time he lost 20kgs.
Sporting a shiny new coat, the focus was on Selso reaching the 180kg milestone weight and preparing him for release.
The seal team changed his feeding regime from hand feeding to throwing fish into the water for him to collect. He did this with much enthusiasm.
Once Selso reached his target weight, a satellite tag was fitted to his head with epoxy. The tag would transmit Selso’s position each time he surfaced to breathe. The tag would fall off during the annual moult in one years’ time.
In addition to the satellite tag, his hind flippers were tagged with plastic tags marked with the number 0180 – his milestone weight.
Final measurements showed that Selso had grown 30cm in length and gained 107kg in 6 months.
In January 2014, SAAMBR staff gathered to bid farewell as Selso left for Durban harbour en route to Port Elizabeth for his release. Port Elizabeth was chosen due to the strong ocean currents running southwards from this area.
Selso’s transport crate was secured on the foredeck of the MSC Sinfonia –a first for the crew who were very interested in his well-being and comfort.
During the trip he was remarkably calm and under constant care of the uShaka Sea World team as well as Mike Meyer from the department of Environmental Affairs.
Selso’s transport crate was hoisted up and over the side of the ship, watched by the excited crew and guests.
Under perfect conditions, Selso was released 25 nautical miles due south of Port Elizabeth.
Once in position the wooden doors were removed from the crate and Selso plopped out with a huge splash to the tremendous cheers of the onlookers.
After a brief backwards glance, Selso hurriedly swam away.
The data from the satellite tag transmitted daily information on Selso’s position. Mike Meyer regularly sends his positioning to us. Selso’s track showed that he appeared to be feeding well.
In May, 4 months after his release, Selso had travelled over 4000km and stopped short of reaching the Antarctic.
Selso then looped back northwards. Incidentally on this image you can also see the satellite tracks of two sub-Antarctic fur seals we released after Selso.
After 4 and a half months at sea, Selso hauled out onto Marion Island near the Bullard Bird site.
Fortunately researchers on the island were able to locate, observe and photograph Selso who seemed to be in good health. Photo: Benoit Morkel
His stay on Marion Island was short-lived. Two days later he was on the move again, in a northerly direction. Photo: Benoit Morkel
Between July and October 2014, Selso stayed on the continental shelf of South Africa between Port St Johns and Plettenberg Bay. He went ashore on a few occasions, mostly at night to rest and by morning he had returned again to the water.
In November 2014, Selso went ashore at Cape Recife in Port Elizabeth. A researcher from Bayworld Aquarium was able to check on him during severely high winds. It was noted that Selso was underweight and had started his annual moult.
Selso’s satellite tag was about to fall off so it was very fortunate that he had come ashore where he did and the researcher was able to retrieve it.
The decision was made between the original key decision makers to move Selso to Bayworld Aquarium in order to moult. Once again, a team effort was needed for Selso’s rehabilitation and release to be a success.
Selso weighed in at 135kgs, having lost 44kgs since his release in January.
Despite the weight loss, his head seemed to have grown in girth and his teeth seemed much bigger too.
Oceans and Coasts were able to download ten months of regular data from the recovered tag. The satellite tag was sent overseas for refurbishing so that it could be used on Selso a second time around.
During this time, Selso completed his moult. Interestingly the moult took 3 weeks to complete compared to the 11 week moult at uShaka Sea World.
The reasons for the quicker moult were possibly due to less swimming, being housed in natural light and a lower food total. After moulting Selso gained weight steadily and had reached over 180kgs by February 2015 when the refurbished tag was ready for deployment.
The satellite tag attachment and sampling went according to plan. Selso was then loaded onto the SAIAB Research vessel, in his original customised crate from uShaka Sea World. He was released in the Agulhas current, 40 nautical miles south of Port Elizabeth.
So long and thanks for all the fish! He unceremoniously entered the water backwards and was not seen again.
A day later, data showed that he had moved west along the continental shelf. Further tracking a few days later showed that Selso was thankfully heading south.
In March and April 2015 he spent a fair amount of time feeding in the current-ring flowing off the ridge to the South-East of Marion Island.
On 18th May 2015 Selso hauled out on Prince Edward Island. At this time the satellite tag stopped transmitting and Mike Meyer suggested that the tag may have been damaged.
Three months later, in August 2015, Selso was spotted by researchers on Marion Island. Selso looked in good condition, but the satellite tag battery seemed to have leaked. Picture credit: John Dickens
On 4th November 2015, researchers on Marion Island spotted Selso. They managed to immobilise him to remove the satellite tag and also take relevant samples. The tag was sent to South Africa in May 2016 to download the data. Selso was looking fat and healthy, having gained weight for his annual moult. Picture credit: John Dickens
The battery was leaking and had stopped functioning. The Department of Environmental Affairs gave us one day’s worth of data to represent the life of Selso as recorded by the tag. The 26th May 2014 was selected and spans one day from midnight to midnight. On this date Selso was returning north after encountering the ice edge of the Antarctic.
26 May 2015
Tag measured depth and temperature every 4 seconds,
The deepest depth that Selso dived was 698 m (2,290 ft), The coldest water temperature was -6.15° C (20.93° F),
The warmest temperature was 1.6° C (34.88° F),
He completed 111 dives on this day,
Average surface time of 57 seconds between dives,
The longest surface time was 7 minutes 24 seconds,
The longest dive duration was 26 minutes 48 seconds,
The shortest dive was 1.8 min,
Average dive duration was 11 minutes.
Our thanks to all the participants in this project as it was a team effort, proving yet again that the passion and commitment of individuals is really what makes projects like this succeed.
Mike Meyer – Oceans & Coasts,
Dept Environmental Affairs,
Nico de Bruyn – University of Pretoria,
Greg Hoffmeyr – Sea Mammal Research Unit Bayworld,
Frikkie van der Fyver - Sea Mammal Research Unit Bayworld,
Cherie Lawrence -Bayworld,
African Coelacanth Ecosystem Project (ACEP),
South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB),
SAAMBR & uShaka Sea World Team,
Selso for being an ambassador & teacher.
At SAAMBR we believe that conservation can be achieved in many different ways. We are greatly concerned about ecosystems, species and the bigger picture of conservation. However, as an organisation that cares for animals, we also care about the welfare of individuals. Although these seal species are not endangered, we had the opportunity to save individuals and gain valuable data to constantly improve on the work that we do.