Elephant seal Emerson extends Victoria city break, defying relocation with 200km swim

Elephant seal swims 200km

Emerson the elephant seal is back in Victoria after defying attempts to relocate him and swimming more than 200 kilometres to return to his preferred urban habitat to moult.

The Fisheries Department says the 225-kilogram seal swam an "astonishing" average of 34 kilometres a day during a six-day journey, after the failed relocation to waters near Vancouver Island's Barkley Sound on April 5.

Fisheries officer Morgan Van Kirk said he was "blown away" by news that two-year-old Emerson had returned to Victoria last week, lounging on a beach during his annual moult, a process in which elephant seals shed their fur and top layer of skin.

“To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I got the email over the weekend and couldn’t believe it,” said Van Kirk, recalling the moment when reports came in that Emerson was back in town.

Van Kirk said he did not want to publicize Emerson's exact location, given his ability to attract a crowd.

But he said he is in a better location than his last visit to Victoria, when he could be seen at busy intersections, surrounded by fans.

Videos and photos on social media show Emerson in the Gorge Waterway area trying to cross a road, napping on the grass, and attempting unsuccessfully to climb over a wall.

Van Kirk said that due to Emerson’s growing popularity, conservation officers had decided to relocate him to the west coast of Vancouver Island. He was placed on a “beautiful nice, quiet beach,” perfect for elephant seals to moult.

Emerson had other ideas.

“I think for any animal, especially a two-year-old elephant seal, to be put in a place that he was unfamiliar with and be able to easily find his way back means he's probably smarter than all of us,” Van Kirk said with a laugh.

The Fisheries Department said in a statement that Emerson's fans need to give him space during the moulting process, and he could be dangerous if he feels threatened.

It said unleashed dogs have been seen barking at Emerson, "often at the instigation of their owners."

"People have approached Emerson to try to pet him, take selfies with him, and on occasion prompted their small children to do the same. And in one reported instance a child was coaxed to touch their nose to his," the statement said.

Van Kirk said these actions are very concerning, and that disturbing marine mammals could result in fines of up to $100,000.

“Once again, even though he looks cute and cuddly, he is over 500 pounds and he is a wild animal, and if they feel threatened, they will react, and that’s something we want to avoid,” said Van Kirk.

Van Kirk said that as long as Emerson is left alone by the public, the department doesn't immediately plan to move him again after his "taxing" journey.

Instead, volunteers have been tasked with deterring people from getting too close.

Emerson was named by U.S. researchers who have tracked him since birth. The Orca Network, a non-profit environmental group, says on its website that Emerson was born in Deception Pass State Park in Puget Sound in 2022 and his mother, Elsie May, also has a history of “being a little too people friendly.”

Emerson fan Hailie Beaulieu of Victoria said when she heard he was back, she was “laughing hysterically.”

Beaulieu said she saw Emerson hanging out on the grass in the sun around the Gorge Waterway area on April 3.

“He’s living his best life and he just looked so peaceful,” said Beaulieu.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2024.

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