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Race Rocks guardian captures two elephant seal births on video

The group of small islands is sometimes called the Galapagos of the North because of its unique high tidal current that attracts marine mammals, sea birds, fish, algae and sea grass.

As the lone human resident of Race Rocks, Derek Sterling gets to see the cycles of sea life unfolding every day.

So when two pregnant northern elephant seals hauled out on the rocky Islands of the ecological preserve in Juan de Fuca Strait last month, he readied his cameras.

He filmed one of the females giving birth on Boxing Day, and the other last Friday. Both pups are healthy, suckling in a hollow dip just outside the door of his residence. Sterling used long lenses on his cameras and stayed out of sight as he was filming so he wouldn’t disturb the animals.

“It was an incredible experience to witness,” said Sterling, who posted the 73-second video on YouTube. “They were calling for some time, but I could tell by the tone she was ready and it just happened.”

He’s hoping more females will arrive in the coming days to give birth, along with what Sterling calls the “Beach Monster,” a 5,000-pound male who will mate with the harem.

Race Rocks Ecological Preserve, about 1.5 kilometres from shore and 14 km from Victoria, has been managed by Pearson College of the Pacific in Metchosin since 1997. The school maintains classrooms and residences there for “ecoguardians” like Sterling, who keep watch over several buildings and the Canadian Coast Guard’s automated lighthouse.

The group of small islands is sometimes called the Galapagos of the North because of its unique high tidal current that attracts marine mammals, sea birds, fish, algae and sea grass.

It’s a major haul out area for California and northern sea lions and a birthing rookery for harbour seals — and the most northerly birthing colony on the Pacific coast of North America for the northern elephant seal.

Last year, three pups were born there, Sterling said, and the year before there were five.

He said although the northern elephant seal ranges from Mexico to Alaska, Race Rocks is considered the northern-most birthing rookery because multiple pups are born there every year.

The mother elephant seals will stay on shore for several weeks with their pups while they go through their “catastrophic moults” — a painful process in which they shed their fur and and an underlying layer of skin. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, an elephant seal can beach itself for more than a month while it moults and lose up to 25 per cent of its weight because it doesn’t eat.

Sterling said the mother elephant seals and their newborns likely won’t return to the water until late spring.

Northern elephant seals live along the Pacific coast in North America and are known for their unusually long noses — though the feature is more prominent in older males. They spend about nine months in the ocean, occasionally hauling out on beaches to rest. They migrate to California, primarily offshore islands, to breed and rear their pups between December and March, but their range is spreading north.

They are slow movers in land and water and can dive to extreme depths for extended periods compared with other seal species, according to conservancy groups. Adults can reach depths of nearly one kilometre and can stay under for up to 30 minutes at a time while foraging for their chief prey, which includes squid, octopus, shark and halibut.

Northern elephant seals were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s, coveted for their blubber, which was rendered for lamp oils. Only about 1,000 remained until protections in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada saw their numbers move beyond at-risk status. Recent data puts their population at more than 160,000 animals.

Sterling said Race Rocks is a busy, sometimes frantic, area for wildlife. The wildlife guide and photographer and instructor at West Coast Adventure College does two- or three-month stretches on the ecological preserve, documenting and photographing animals and marine plants and maintaining the structures, which include a pair of two-storey residences/classrooms, the lighthouse and outbuildings.

One day in early November, Sterling counted 1,600 Stellar and California sea lions, hundreds of harbour seals and nesting gulls and oyster catchers. This week, he watched Bigg’s orcas hunting seals just a few metres off the Race Rocks dock.

Race Rocks is closed to the public and boating community, and Sterling noted the elephant seals and pups are not visible from the water.

Anyone interested in life there can go to to access the islands’ webcams, which can be manually controlled for viewing from your computer or device.

Video by Alanna Kelly