WATCH | Snorkeler films underwater encounter with rare elephant seal in Cape Town

Steve Benjaming says Buffel is easily identified due to being blind in his left eye. Picture: Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean
Steve Benjaming says Buffel is easily identified due to being blind in his left eye. Picture: Steve Benjamin/Animal Ocean

New underwater footage is giving Capetonians a glimpse into the life of one of its most mysterious visitors. 

Buffel the elephant seal has returned to Duiker Island, where he's been spotted by snorkelers for the last three years. 

The animal is native to the Southern Ocean, with the closest colony being on Marion Island – more than 2 000km from Cape Town.

Animal Ocean owner Steve Benjamin, who leads seal snorkeling trips from Hout Bay, filmed Buffel cavorting in the kelp last week after previously only managing to take a few photographs.

Although he was first spotted in 2016, Benjamin said they only managed to figure out who he was the following year, thanks to a photo showing a tag on one of his flippers.

The number was matched to an animal that was tagged in Cape Point.

Unusual visitor

"He's a very unusual visitor. We do get a few elephant seals coming through Cape Town every year, but it's very far out of their range – they're not supposed to stay here and he's the only one that has stuck around... As an individual he has taken up residence in Cape Town, whether he thinks it's his home or he likes it for some reason," Benjamin told News24.

He said the animal is easily identifiable due to an injury that left him blind in his left eye.

But while Buffel has become a familiar face, it's still a mystery how he came to be in Cape Town. 

"We don't have any real evidence of how he came to be here. There was a photograph taken of a young elephant seal in Cape Point in 2012… but without any proof, the story is he might have been born here by mistake and he thinks he's at home basically, but there's no way to tell for sure. 

All we know is that he was tagged when he was young in Cape Point and he's just kept coming back every year - he kept hanging around basically."

Keep your distance

Benjamin said, while Buffel wasn't necessarily dangerous, anyone who encountered him should err on the side of caution.

"The best thing to do if you see him in the water is just to keep your distance – he's very big, but it's unlikely he would approach anyone – he's very, very shy."

In February 2019, Buffel famously spent a few weeks on Fish Hoek beach, where he completed his annual molt, and people were warned to keep their distance.

Benjamin said southern elephant seals are very special because they can dive extremely deep for extremely long periods.

During breeding season, males busy themselves with collecting a harem of females and Benjamin speculates that this may be the reason Buffel is drawn to the resident Cape Fur Seal colony at Duiker Island.

"He's probably hanging out on the island because it's mating season and he doesn't know what to do with himself, because he's got none of his own species around."

For more information about seal snorkeling in Cape Town you can visit Animal Ocean's website.

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