Unusual sighting of juvenile elephant seal in in southern Sri Lanka


On November 20, an unusual visitor was spotted off Dalawella beach in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka. Based on available video footage forwarded by the Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy, Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva, Dr. Asha de Vos, Founder and Executive Director of Oceanswell along with a team of international experts was able to identify it as a juvenile southern elephant seal.

This individual, a vagrant, is thought to have arrived from the Kerguelen Islands approximately 6,500 km due south of Sri Lanka. Through Oceanswell’s social media networks we have continued to provide updates on the status of the animal and in return received invaluable information from local community members that have allowed us to track and safeguard it with the help of the Sri Lankan Navy and Department of Wildlife. Over the next week the animal was seen ‘hauling out’ on the beach or on the rocks in various locations along the southern coast including, Midigama and Polwathumodara. At each location, human interference resulted in the animal swimming away.

In a social media update on November 23, Dr. Asha stated that the best thing to do was to do was to give it space. In a further update on November 27 she stated, "Our priority is to give the animal as much space as it needs so that it can rest as necessary. It may also be looking for a place to haul out so that it can go through a catastrophic moult."

This was concluded based on discussions with Dr. Claire Simeone of the Marine Mammal Center, USA and Dr. Greg Hofemeyer from Port Elizabeth Museum, South Africa, both experts with extensive experience working with seals.

Based on a photo submitted by Stanley Ariyawansa on December 3, Dr. Asha provided a further update stating, "As you can see, our unusual visitor, the elephant seal is starting to look a little tattered with patches of missing fur - this is because the animal has begun its annual moult. The annual moult is a completely normal event and one that we expected would happen given the behaviours we have been observing. Moulting is the process by which elephant seals replace old skin and hair. While most animals shed hairs year-round (think about your pet dog!), elephant seals do it all at once. The process is so abrupt that it’s called a ‘catastrophic’ moult. Because the animal is susceptible to the cold during this period it spends the entire month ‘hauled out’ on land. During this time it spends most of the time dozing and lazily flipping sand onto itself in an attempt to manage body temperature. It doesn’t eat and may lose up to 25% of its body weight. Please do not attempt to move it back in the ocean.

As you can imagine, the seal is particularly vulnerable at this time as the moulting process is intensive and takes energy. As a result it is quite vulnerable to being disturbed and can feel threatened and therefore get aggressive if anyone gets too close. So we continue to ask that people maintain their distance (minimum of 25 m) and give the animal sufficient space to go through this important lifecycle event."

We continue to urge the general public to send any updates via our social media (@OceanswellOrg on Facebook and Instagram) and remain a minimum of 25 m away from the animal so as not to cause any disturbance or risk getting bitten. We are grateful to the Sri Lanka Navy and Department of Wildlife for their work on the ground and the numerous individuals who have come together to provide updates, photos and footage to help us ensure proper action is taken to safeguard this visitor.

Oceanswell is a Sri Lankan marine conservation research and education organization that envisions a world where everyone is equipped and commtted to protect all ocean life. Oceanswell’s mission is to change the ocean’s trajectory by nurturing the next generation of diverse ocean heroes, equipping under-represented nations to conduct marine conservation research and to inspire meaningful conversations about the magic of our world’s oceans. For more information, please contact Dr. Asha de Vos, Founder and Executive Director, Oceanswell at asha@oceanswell.org or visit @Oceanswellorg on Facebook and Instagram.

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