Missile and satellite launch bases are generally not considered ideal camping spots for wildlife. But at a US Air Force base in California, a group of elephant seals has apparently decided to prove this notion wrong.

elephant seals_military base_2017_02_13.JPG
Harbour seals and elephant seals laze by the ocean at Vandenberg Air Force Base. For the first time in several decades, the site is home to an elephant seal rookery. Image: Ian Dudley

The base in question, the Vandenberg Air Force Base (Vandenberg AFB), is one of the major space launch hubs for the western coast of the United States. Satellites bound for polar orbit take off from the facility, and Elon Musk's SpaceX programme uses the site for orbital rocket launches as well.

Yet despite the commotion of rocketry, northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) have started breeding in the area, according to Vandenberg AFB Natural Resources Program manager Rhys Evans.

"This year is the first year, in the last 30 years, that we have detected elephant seal breeding on Vandenberg and that is pretty cool," Evans said. "It is a small beach on South Base, in an area we monitor once a month, and we saw two weeks ago for the first time five pups. Each female has one pup. It's a pretty small cove, so it is probably only big enough for one or two males."

A male elephant seal can weigh over 2,000 kilograms. Image: Mike Baird/Flickr

According to Evans, the elephant seals are not alone – on average, between 700 and 1,000 harbour seals (Phoca vitulina) can be found swimming just off the coast or taking a break on the shore. But the sighting does mark the first time in decades that elephant seals have decided to turn the area into a rookery, with previous appearances confined to a few hundred juvenile males seeking a place to recover after losing breeding fights. Still, the choice of home isn't actually as unusual as it might seem.

"We really only have a few minutes of really loud noise per year and the rest of the time it is silent," Evans explained. "We have been doing the launch mission long enough now that we have seen the local wildlife adjust to the launches and become less bothered by it."

The new arrivals are exciting, though there is some concern about potential disruptions to the other wildlife in the area. According to Evans, other local animals, such as the threatened ground-nesting snowy plover, could easily find themselves trampled by seal bulls in combat.

The seals are not generally aggressive, but fights over mates do break out come breeding season. Males weigh in at an average of 1,500–2,300 kilograms (approximately 3,300–5,100 pounds) and measure up to five metres (approximately 16 feet) in length. For such supersized creatures, they're also remarkably fast. 

"As cool as this is, it also terrifies us sometimes because the two large males battling each other on base could easily take out 20 plover nests without even thinking about it," Evans said. "They are currently on a beach that is completely underwater at high tide, and we hope they stay there."

Meanwhile, visitors to the area may see new seal pups on the beach in the coming days. The number one rule during a sighting? Keep your distance – even if the youngsters look to be in distress. Pups go through a moulting process during which they can appear wounded or diseased; in reality, they simply need to be left alone to finish the process. Plus, you don't want an angry multi-tonne parent seeing you as a threat.

And if you're curious to see what a bull fight looks like, here you go:


Top Image: Mike Baird/Flickr