A team of WCS conservationists has reported that a young male elephant seal tracked for the past year swam an astonishing 18,000 miles—the equivalent of New York to Sydney, Australia—and back again.
WCS tracked the male seal, nicknamed Jackson, from December 2010, to November 2011, after tagging him on a beach in Admiralty Sound in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. Conservationists fitted Jackson with a small satellite transmitter that recorded the locations where he surfaced to breathe.
After being tagged, Jackson swam 1,000 miles north, 400 miles west, and 100 miles south. All the while, he meandered though fjords and ventured past the continental shelf as he foraged for fish and squid.
Elephant seals are potential indicators of ocean health and may show how climate change influences the distribution of prey species in Patagonia's rich marine ecosystem. To protect this vast region, conservationists need to know how wildlife uses it throughout the year.
"Jackson's travels provide a roadmap of how elephant seals use the Patagonian Coast and its associated seas," said Caleb McClennen, WCS Director for Global Marine Programs. "This information is vital to improving ocean management in the region, helping establish protected areas in the right places, and ensuring fisheries are managed sustainably without harming vulnerable marine species like the southern elephant seal."
The information WCS gathers will serve as a foundation for a new model of private-public, terrestrial-marine conservation of the Admiralty Sound, Karukinka Natural Park (a WCS private protected area), and Alberto de Agostini National Park. It will help build a broader vision for bolstering conservation efforts across the Patagonian Sea and coast.
WCS reports that Jackson has returned to Admiralty Sound, the site of the original tagging. Each year, elephant seals haul ashore in colonies to molt and find mates. The satellite transmitter is expected to work until early next year, when it will eventually fall off.
WCS has tracked more than 60 elephant seals via satellite on the Atlantic side of the Southern Cone since the early 1990s, but Jackson is the first to be tagged from the Pacific side.
Elephant seals are among the largest pinnipeds in the world, reaching weights of up to 7,500 pounds and lengths of 20 feet.
Since 2004, WCS has owned and managed Karukinka Natural Park, the largest protected area on the main island of Tierra del Fuego. The 728,960-acre park protects the world's southernmost stands of old growth forests as well as grasslands, rivers, and wetlands. WCS, in partnership with the global investment bank Goldman, Sachs & Co., which donated the lands, has transformed Karukinka into a flagship for wildlife conservation in Patagonia. It is now supported by an advisory board made up of local scientific and business sector representatives who provide recommendations on the park's development, serving as a model for how the private sector can help advance conservation activities worldwide.