Ziggy the elephant seal is a celebrity in South Africa.
It’s not just because of the pup’s local birth last fall, although that was unusual for a creature typically found in the Southern Ocean or on islands near Antarctica.
“Every few years, a few ellie seals come ashore on the South African coast, but most of these are young animals in an exploratory phase of their life,” said marine scientist Greg Hofmeyr. To have “a pup born (here) ... is extremely rare.”
Hofmeyr is a researcher at Bayworld, a tourist destination in the city of Port Elizabeth. He got involved in October after the female seal that was given the name Zelda appeared on the beach at Cape Recife and gave birth to Ziggy. For the next three weeks, he and a group of volunteers monitored the pair from a distance and tried to make sure they weren’t disturbed by people, dogs or other animals.
When Zelda returned to the ocean in mid-November, the pup was fat and healthy but still at risk on the beach, Hofmeyr said. That’s when Bayworld became Ziggy’s temporary home, and he became the team’s sweetheart. He loved to play with the dead fish added to his pool each day for mealtime. And though he wasn’t in a public space, visitors frequently asked about him.
Just a few days before Christmas, a new adventure began. The research team secured a satellite-linked tag atop the young seal’s head that would allow him to be tracked in the ocean. They loaded him carefully onto a boat and released him about 40 miles off the coast, betting he would head toward ever-deeper waters. His journey could provide important new details on his species.
Researchers hope to gauge whether elephant seals rely on instinct to find their way or learn where to go by experience. Or maybe it is both, Hofmeyr said. “We will be able to follow Ziggy’s movements and diving behavior at sea.”
When the scientists released him, they expected him to swim more than a thousand challenging miles.
“We hope that he doesn’t meet any killer whales!” Hofmeyr said.
If he proves a smart, lucky seal, he will reach one of those islands near Antarctica in a few months. The research team wants to follow him for a full year.
“Ziggy could teach us more about how pups adapt to the sea and navigate for the first time,” Hofmeyr said.
As of Sunday, Ziggy’s adventure had taken him more than 1,200 miles from Port Elizabeth. On Jan. 6, he entered the Roaring Forties, a stormy region of the Southern Ocean that is home to his species. Braving the region for the past two weeks, he reached the Antarctic Polar Front and is swimming southwest.
Ziggy is still fairly far from any subantarctic island, the natural homes of the elephant seals. The nearest is Bouvet Island, which is about 500 miles to his southwest.
It’s not just the researchers who are keeping a close eye on him. Bayworld is updating the public on Port Elizabeth Museum Marine Animals’ Facebook page. After a recent journey update, 67 readers had shared the post and 22 commented.
“Well done Ziggy,” wrote one fan. “Keep going you’re getting there!!!” urged another.
It looks like everyone is rooting for a successful journey for the brave seal!