This month, Spencer Andrich, a high school Social Studies teacher based in Anacortes, Washington, found himself sheltering in place with an unlikely companion. “I was lesson planning on my computer, and I looked out the window, and there was a giant elephant seal kind of coming towards the house.”
Since Washington State Governor Jay Inslee issued a Stay at Home Order on March 23rd, Andrich has been living at his family’s beachfront property about 60 miles north of Seattle. The home has been in his family for three generations, but according to Andrich, an elephant seal visit is a first. “I don’t think we ever had anything close to this happen here.”
Andrich got some help identifying the elephant seal from Ralph Downes, an enforcement officer for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and who has encountered her many times on his patrols.
“I got on the horn with Ralph, and he immediately knew who she was. She has three tags on her flippers, [but] he didn’t have to ID them. He goes, ‘I’ll bet you anything that’s Elsie May,’” Andrich said.
While the tagged flippers confirmed Downes’ guess, it was her unusual behavior that had given her away in the first place. Andrich summarized Elsie May’s reputation among biologists, enforcement officers, and others familiar with the seal: “Apparently, she’s very social. She gives zero effs. And she knows she’s on the top.”
Northern elephant seals spend the majority of their lives out in the open ocean. They can dive for up to two hours underwater and come to the surface for just a few minutes at a time. In the spring, elephant seals make the rare visit ashore to molt, where they shed fur and regrow their upper layer of skin. A typical elephant seal seeks out remote stretches of beach for a month-long period of undisturbed molting.
Not Elsie May.
“For whatever reason, she associates our area, Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands, as a safe haven. And since she’s seen people throughout her life, she doesn’t mind cars and dogs and people,” Downes said. “In fact, she’s a little inquisitive. She wants to come closer to see what the heck you’re doing.”
That was Andrich’s experience with Elsie May. One morning, Andrich was filming her from the safety of his kitchen when she approached the house and attempted to come inside through a sliding glass door. “I was saying ‘no no no’ because she could easily break that glass door. I imagine she’s hundreds if not thousands of pounds.” Female Elephant Seals can weigh up to 1,300 pounds, according to NOAA Fisheries.
Elsie May didn’t end up breaking the glass. Instead, she settled on the outer screen door, which “she shredded,” according to Andrich.
Later that day, Andrich got another video of her fast asleep on the lawn.
Elsie May did not end up molting on Andrich’s property. On day three of Elsie May’s visit, Andrich was on a conference call when he saw her begin to make her way back to the ocean. As soon as the call ended, Anrich recalls,“I immediately went on my paddle board to see if I could find her, but she was gone.”
Andrich had initially been a little worried about the prospect of cohabiting with a wild animal, but he found himself feeling surprisingly emotional at her departure: “Well especially during a time of quarantine and not being able to see people, it was definitely a welcomed interaction. She picked the right time to come and visit.”