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Elephant seal herded back to waterfront after wandering onto street

Emerson, who has become a local celebrity after showing up in Oak Bay last year, turned up at Gorge and Admirals roads this week

When Eliz Katz saw Emerson the elephant seal hanging out at Gorge and Admirals roads this week, he quickly borrowed a sandwich board to prevent the two-year-old marine mammal from getting hit by a vehicle.

While he waited for Fisheries and Oceans Canada to arrive, Katz used the sign to encourage Emerson to return to Craigflower-Kosapsum Park next to the water, where he would be safe.

“Please drive with caution near Gorge and Admirals. This morning [Wednesday] Emerson the elephant seal was on the actual road,” Katz wrote on social media.

“Thank you to the people that helped and to Amica House for letting me borrow their sign to corral him back up towards the water before DFO arrived and moved him to the beach.”

He called on people to watch their dogs, drive with caution and not to block the waterside grassy area, “as he won’t go back with people standing there.”

Emerson has become a local celebrity after showing up in Oak Bay last year, where he made his way onto the grassy boulevard next to Beach Drive. Despite several efforts to relocate him, he continues to return to Victoria-area waters, migrating between B.C. and Washington state.

Some people are concerned the elephant seal will be become habituated to humans, but that’s unlikely, said Andrew Trites, director of the marine mammal research unit at the University of B.C.’s institute for oceans and fisheries.

The elephant seal is “probably very indifferent to people around him,” said Trites, who advises people to keep a healthy distance from the animal.

Elephant seals are not aggressive by nature, he said, but an approaching dog might prompt the animal to react. “The animals have teeth, they can bite.

“You might think that just looks like a slug on a beach but they can move extremely fast when they want to or when they are motivated.”

Emerson is a northern elephant seal, a species hunted nearly to extinction for their blubber. But since the 1800s, numbers have rebounded and today there are more than 200,000 between Mexico and Alaska. A few breed in B.C. but so far that’s rare.

Elephant seals come ashore twice a year to give birth or breed and to moult. When not onshore, they go out to sea to feed on deep-sea food such as squid and hake, Trites said.

April and May is the prime time for females and juvenile males like Emerson to go through the three-to-five-week moulting process, during which they lose their hair and top layer of skin, then regrow their hair to stave off cold in the water.

Skin and hair falls off in patches in a process that looks so dramatic, it’s referred to as a catastrophic moult. When the hair grows back, the animals head back into the water and leave the area.

Trites likens Emerson, who seems particularly agile and active, to a curious toddler during the weeks spent ashore.

“What are you going to do during that time? You’re bored. Are you just going to lie on the beach and wait for it to be over?

“Or if you’re a young male, why not wander and explore the world?

“There’s a whole world out there to be discovered. But there is also a whole world out there to get into trouble with as well.”

A young male sea lion would not recognize danger from traffic, said Trites, who does not think that Emerson is returning to the area because he is drawn to humans.

“It just happens to be that people are living in and around an area that is considered by this animal in particular to be a good place to moult, and probably would be a good place for other elephant seals once they, too, discover it.”

Elephant seals can’t be counted on to return every year to the same location. However, they are creatures of habit, Trites said.

It’s possible that Emerson will return next year to moult, but “maybe he’ll decide some of the other beaches are much nicer.”

The big males with distinctive elephant-like noses can reach 2,000 kilograms, surpassing seals and sea lions in the northern hemisphere. Females are considerably smaller, weighing about 600 kilograms.

The body size of males increases rapidly from two to six years of age, said Trites, who specializes in pinnipeds — seals and sea lions.

Females give birth for the first time at an average age of three to four and have an average life expectancy of about 20 years, he said.

Males are mature at five years, but don’t have the social maturity to breed until eight, with prime breeding years between nine and 12, said Trites, noting males have a life expectancy of 14 years.

Anyone who sees a distressed or entangled marine mammal is asked to go to Fisheries and Oceans’ online reporting link at

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