On the remote shores of the wild Great Race Rocks Island, Derek Sterling immortalized a rare glimpse of the wonder of marine life: the birth of a baby northern elephant seal.
Sterling, the only person on the otherwise uninhabited island, recently filmed the moment the seal was born on a rocky outcrop about 12 miles southwest of Victoria in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
“This is the first time I’ve had the chance to see an elephant seal give birth,” said Sterling, an ecoguard in charge of maintaining the island, a protected ecological reserve, and monitoring marine life.
“I loved being there and seeing something so amazing.”
A few days before the big reveal, Sterling said the mom “galloped” away from the water to the central part of the island, just 30 feet away from his kitchen door.
Elephant seals usually give birth from December to February and Sterling knew exactly what her arrival meant.
“I know it sounds funny, but you get to know it [the elephant seals’] sounds and their emotions,” he said.
“They’re quite chatty and as soon as I heard the tone of the chats change I got ready to get the camera ready.”
Great Race Rocks Island, is the largest of six islands in the Race Rocks area and is home to an abundance of marine life. The second oldest lighthouse in Western Canada was also built here in 1860.
The island, which can only be reached by boat, is operated by Pearson College UWC, a two-year pre-university school for students pursuing an international baccalaureate degree with a focus on outdoor experience, located about 16 miles southwest of Victoria.
The islands are known as the “Galapagos of the North,” thanks to the rich variety of marine mammals, seabirds, fish, seagrass and algae found there, the college said in a statement.
“The reserve is an unrivaled outdoor marine biology venue for Pearson students from across Canada and around the world who visit it under carefully managed conditions,” the statement said.
No one at Pearson was immediately available for comment.
Sterling, who has been visiting the island regularly for the past two years, is currently living there for six months as the only ecoguardian hired by the college to oversee Parks Canada’s heritage.
“There came an opening to do six months straight, and I took it because these months are when [the seals] come up to give birth,” he said.
The mother seal can be heard moaning or barking in the video and a nearby seal joins in after the pup is born.
Sterling said a range of sounds keep him company on a regular basis. In the autumn and winter months there is an endless cacophony of roars from colonies of seals swarming around their breeding grounds along the rocky coast. The species include California sea lions, harbor seals and of course northern elephant seals.
Northern elephant seals are the largest seals in the Northern Hemisphere. They are mostly found in the eastern and central North Pacific – as far south as Mexico and as far north as Alaska. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, they can range in size from three to four feet and weigh 1,300 to 1,400 pounds. They live to be 13 to 19 years old.
Large colonies usually arrive in the Race Rocks area in mid to late December to rest and breed.
“These females showed up later than I expected,” Sterling said, noting that storms may have slowed the traveling herds.
In the past, three to five northern elephant seals have been born on the island a year, Sterling said, adding that he expects that, though he hopes there will be more.
More births expected
“Right now I’m actually keeping an eye on another female who arrived yesterday. She doesn’t seem to be comfortable, so I’ve got my equipment ready in case the pup arrives soon.”
Sterling said there have been multiple requests to visit the island and native colonies. He recommends anyone interested to watch the island’s live webcam stream.
“Access to the island is restricted because of the animals that nest here.”
He said there’s never a dull day and he’s thankful for the experience.
There’s “just a lot going on all the time,” he said, adding that the roar and chirping is endless from dawn to dusk.
“Sometimes I sit outside and just listen to everything. It’s great to experience.”