Male elephant seals are not known for their paternal instincts. While splayed out on the beach during the breeding season, these far-from-gentle giants focus on mating with females and fighting other males. As they hustle their two tons of bulk around the colony in pursuit of these goals, “they’ll run over pups” without hesitation, crushing even their own offspring, said Daniel Costa, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Which made the events of Jan. 27, 2022, all the more striking. Sarah Allen and Matthew Lau, wildlife biologists at the National Park Service, were surveying the northern elephant seal population at Point Reyes National Seashore, about 30 miles northwest of San Francisco. As they walked past a colony lounging on the beach, they noticed a young pup resting with an adult female close to the water.
“It was a warm day,” Dr. Allen recalled, so she figured the two were cooling off on the wet sand.
When Dr. Allen and Mr. Lau passed the colony again on their way back, the situation had changed. The rising tide had pulled the pup out to sea and, too young to swim, it was struggling to stay afloat. The female was still on the beach, answering the pup’s plaintive cries with calls of her own, which attracted the attention of a nearby male.
“We thought, Oh, he’s going to try and mate with her,” Dr. Allen said.
Instead, he gave the female a sniff and then “charged out into the surf,” she added. When he reached the pup, he used his body to gently nudge it back to the beach — probably saving its life.
Dr. Allen has observed elephant seals for more than 40 years and had never seen anything like this before. “I contacted a bunch of colleagues asking if they’d seen anything like this, and nobody had,” she said. Dr. Costa agreed: “It’s completely out of the ordinary.”
Dr. Allen and her colleagues published their observation in January in the journal Marine Mammal Science. Dr. Costa said the article could encourage other seal scientists to be on the lookout for similar behaviors.
Northern elephant seals fast during the breeding season (roughly December to March), so males normally try to save their energy for mating and fending off rivals. By rushing down the beach like David Hasselhoff in “Baywatch,” this lifeguard of a seal was not only abandoning his harem of females but also expending valuable energy.
This led Dr. Allen to interpret what she saw as a potential act of altruism, when one organism sacrifices some of its own well-being to help another.
“He was so determined and directional in going out there, and so fast,” she said. “And then coming back in, he was so gentle.”
While the male clearly meant to push the pup back to shore, it’s impossible to fully understand his intentions in doing so. And since this is the first time anyone has seen anything like this from elephant seals, Dr. Costa suspects it was a rare one-off behavior.
Altruism in the animal kingdom is most common between relatives, and because northern elephant seals were hunted to near-extinction in the 19th century and then rebounded, many of them are more closely related than they otherwise would be. Dr. Allen suspects that the male seal and the pup he saved are related in some way, but without genetic data, she can’t say for sure.
Elephant seals live extreme lives. When they’re not on the beach fasting, fighting and reproducing, they spend months at sea continuously diving for food — sometimes down as deep as a mile. “Elephant seals are complicated,” Dr. Allen said. “We only see a small fraction of their life.” She thinks it’s time for us to start looking at male elephant seals in a new light.
Dr. Costa had thought elephant seals generally lacked the brainpower of their sea lion cousins. But the dramatic beach rescue at Point Reyes showed him that there might be more to them than meets the eye.
“Maybe there’s more going on up there than I thought,” he said with a laugh.