Elephant seal makes ‘epic’ trek back after Canadian officials relocate him

<span>Conservation officials shipped Emerson away ‘far from human habitation’ for his peace. He had other ideas.</span><span>Photograph: DFO/MPO</span>
Conservation officials shipped Emerson away ‘far from human habitation’ for his peace. He had other ideas.Photograph: DFO/MPO

Last week, gun-wielding conservation officers stuffed a 500-lb elephant seal in the back of a van, drove him along a winding highway in western Canada and left him on a remote beach “far from human habitation”.

The plan was to move the young seal far from British Columbia’s capital city, where over the last year, he has developed a reputation for ending up in “unusual locations”, including flower beds, city parks and busy roads.

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Emerson, as he is known to locals, had other plans.

Less than a week after he was removed from Victoria, he made an “epic” 126-mile trek along the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island back to the city, a return that has left conservation officers in disbelief.

But Emerson’s presence and growing popularity has alarmed those same officers, as the public takes increasingly risky behaviour around the animal, including one group who encouraged a child to pet his nose.

Born in Washington state in 2022, the young pup was cared for by a group of volunteers after his mother left. Last year, he began popping up on beaches around Victoria and has since taken on near-celebrity status. When word spreads that he has been spotted lounging in the sun or sleeping between parked cars, crowds quickly gather with their cameras drawn.

“I’ve been coming down every day to see him for a month – big, old, fat thing,” Peggy McCann told local media last year. “Everybody else here also started watching him. I just think it was marvelous. It’s so nice to see this.”

Northern elephant seals spend most of their lives in the water but they come ashore to breed and moult. Emerson is currently doing the latter, undergoing a month-long biological process where he sheds all of his fur and underlying layer of skin that is “highly taxing” on the seal, said Canada’s department of fisheries and oceans.

On 1 April, he was spotted moulting in a busy park, prompting conservation officers to cordon off the area in yellow caution tape and post a sign warning the public to stay back – a request that was ignored.

Five days later, he was moved out of the city to better let him to moult “in peace”, the department said.

But his return – and apparent lack of interest in people – has created a troubling situation for conservation staff. Although Emerson has so far seemed unmoved by the gawking crowds, reports of harassment have increased to “concerning levels”.

“People have approached Emerson to try and pet him, take selfies with him, and on occasion prompted their small children to do the same,” the department said. “If public disturbances of the elephant seal continue, someone will get hurt.”

Conservation staff say they will probably be forced to move the young pinniped again.

“However, it would be ideal if this could be avoided to allow Emerson his space to complete his moulting process in the location he has chosen.”