‘Quite a celebrity’: Elephant seal ‘Emerson’ moulting in Saanich

'Quite a celebrity': Elephant seal 'Emerson' moulting in Saanich
A moulting seal nicknamed Emerson is pictured behind caution tape in Saanich, Monday, April 1, 2024.

An elephant seal that’s grown fond of Greater Victoria and is known to hobble through parking lots and campsites has returned to moult, only this time in Saanich where marine officials are asking people to keep their distance.

When Paul Cottrell, marine mammal rescue coordinator with Fisheries and Oceans Canada got word that the seal was back, he thought it was an April Fools’ joke.

“Because Emerson’s quite a celebrity both in the U.S. and Canada,” he laughed Monday. “He is definitely drawn to Victoria and busy areas.”

The seal, nicknamed Emerson, made its way out of the Gorge Waterway and onto land sometime Monday morning, says Cottrell. “We thought he might show up for his moult, and that’s what it appears. He looks like he’s starting his moult.”

A crowd could be seen gathered near him.

“This morning we were coming for a normal walk along the Gorge Waterway, and as we approached, we saw the big (seal). Then he moved himself over the bank, and then he brought himself to the garden,” said Philip Brown, who took some photos.

“Looks like he’s sunning himself nicely on the grass over there. We called DFO to let them know because we weren’t sure what his situation was. He’s very well known to them. He’s quite a character, apparently.”

Cottrell says the DFO has identified it as Emerson because of his flipper tags.

“When Emerson was born in Deception Pass Park in the U.S., they put flipper tags on him. So he’s got a unique number and white tag. We know him very well over the past year and a bit,” he said in an interview. 

“These elephant seals pick the strangest places.”

A regular visitor

The seal, born on Jan. 31, 2022, hails from south of the border but has appeared on southern Vancouver Island numerous times. Last May, for example, he was seen in Oak Bay. The following September, he showed up on the Songhees Walkway before DFO crews relocated him to the Island’s northwest coast.

“We were worried he was going to get into traffic or interact with dogs or people on that walkway,” said Cottrell. “We relocated him just for his own safety, and he did show back up (two days later) in Jordan River at a campground. So we had to relocate him again. So we’ve relocated Emerson three times.”

He seemingly has a love for humans that stems from birth.

“He’s a really young animal, but his mom actually gave birth to him in the park, and he was used to people from a young age,” said Cottrell. “He’s continued that trend.”

READ PREVIOUS: ‘Let it just be’: Moulting elephant seal found along Oak Bay’s Beach Drive

Each time DFO crews encounter him, he’s gained weight. Last May, Emerson was around 350 lbs., and now the DFO guesses he weighs 500 lbs. “He looks really healthy and again, put on a lot of weight, which is what these seals do,” said Cottrell.

He sums up the yearly moult as “catastrophic” for seals.

“It’s a real stressful four- to five-week period where they’ll haul and just go through this skin cracking, shedding, and there’s often pus,” he said. “It’s really nasty and painful. They basically get it over with and get back into the water.”

Around 11:30 a.m., Leri Davis with the DFO told CHEK News that conservation and protection fishery officers would be on the site in Saanich shortly “to create some protective barriers and put up warning signs.”

A warning sign and caution tape now surround Emerson.

Keep your distance

Cottrell encourages people who spot a marine animal that might be injured, distressed or tangled to call the DFO.

“We do our best to get the caution tape up and ensure that the animal is safe, but also the public. These are big animals, and if you startle them or if there’s a dog off-leash, there’s potential for a real negative interaction there,” he said.

“We’re hoping Emerson behaves this time and doesn’t move into public areas. Again, we’ll monitor and assess. But if we do have to move him, we will. But he is attracted to people because of his past, so we have to be really careful with that.”

Cottrell thinks locals will be pleased to hear Emerson’s back, though he wishes he’d moult someplace else.

“I know a lot of folks will be happy that he’s still doing well and developing as a young adult male. We would prefer if he would haul out where he should be, more like Race Rocks or some isolated area where he can do his moult. But he is drawn to people, and his mother was also drawn to people,” added Carrell.

“We’re trying to slowly break that bond over time.”

The DFO can be reached at 1-800-465-4336. More information about moulting elephant seals is online here.

Emerson is pictured in Saanich.

Ethan MorneauEthan Morneau

Recent Stories

Send us your news tips and videos!