Male Elephant Seal Saves Drowning Pup in Rare Act of Intraspecies Heroism

During mating season, male seals usually have one thing on their mind. For about three months, the seals conserve all their energy to mate, or at least try to, with nearby females at the beach. But not all heroes wear capes, some of them weigh two tons made of blubber, and are willing to sacrifice precious energy to save a pup from drowning without even trying to get it on with its mother.

A group of wildlife biologists at the National Park Service observed a rare act of altruism by a bull elephant seal as they were surveying a colony at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. In a recently published paper in the journal Marine Mammal Science, the authors describe how they were walking along the shore on a sunny day in January, 2022, when they noticed a female seal calling out to a two-week old pup that had been pulled into the water by the waves and was struggling to stay afloat. A nearby alpha male rushed to the scene, exchanging a brief interaction with the female before turning his attention to the source of her urgent calling—a drowning pup.

The male seal charged across the wet sand and into the water, using his head and body to gently push the pup while swimming towards shore. As the tide pulled back, the gentle giant again used his body to anchor the baby seal and prevent it from being drawn out to sea, according to the paper.

Photo: Matthew Lau

Eventually, mother and pup were reunited and the blubbery lifeguard needed his rest, laying down on the wet sand after ensuring that his mission was a success.

Although some species occasionally display heroic behavior, male marine mammals are not known for their self-sacrificing qualities. In fact, they rarely engage in taking care of their pups, and are instead all about mating.

From mid-December to end of March, Northern elephant seals fast during the breeding season, using their energy to mate with females or protect their harem from other males. “[The alpha male’s] subsequent behavior of pursuing the pup and pushing it to shore, might be interpreted as misdirected sexual behavior, where dominant males frequently herd and escort females to shore to thwart harassment by other males,” the researchers behind the paper wrote. “However, we propose that the actions were intentional, where the male redirected his attention from the distressed female to that of the pup; appearing to take deliberate action, sprinting out beyond the surf at considerable distance away from the female and his harem.”

The researchers also note that after mom and pup were reunited, the male seal did not try to approach her but instead collapsed onto the shore after a successful rescue mission. A true hero.

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