Skip to main content

Elephant seal inspires retired B.C. teacher to volunteer, write a book


When Debbie Austen was walking along the ocean last year and spotted a young elephant seal playing in the water, she never would have imagined it was the start of an enduring relationship.

“He has spunk. He has charisma,” Debbie recalls meeting the seal named Emerson. “And he was very intelligent.”

Emerson also seemed to always be doing something fun for Debbie to capture with her camera.

“He would be playing with the seaweed. He would be rolling [around the driftwood],” Debbie says before showing me video of Emerson’s antics. “And then he would look up at me, as if to say, ‘Did you see that?’ He felt proud.”

But after visiting Emerson almost daily for about a month, Debbie also saw how the seal would wander away from the water on to the shore, and transform a path for pets and pedestrians into a playground.

“He was getting into trouble towards the end,” Debbie says, showing video of how the Emerson was batting a pylon up and down with the sign warning people to keep their distance from him. “It wasn’t safe for him or others so he needed to be relocated.”

It wasn’t the first time Emerson was relocated, Debbie later learned. Emerson was born in a Washington state park, where the baby would regularly play around people, just like his mom Elsie-Mae did.

“[Elsie-Mae] ended up on picnic tables at campgrounds,” Debbie recalls reading. “I think she even climbed up the steps into a fifth wheel.”

This year, Debbie heard Emerson was back in the waters around southern Vancouver Island and hanging around public places, including a playground. After crossing a busy road, the seal was relocated even farther away. But this time, he swam a remarkable 34 kilometres a day to return to Greater Victoria just six days later.

“You've got to love a character that’s adventurous and out to have fun!” Debbie laughs.

When Emerson acts like the subject of a joke and wriggles out of the water, stopping traffic for hours so he can wander across a suburban street, you can ask "Why did the elephant seal cross the road?”

And the answer — rather than a punchline —seems to be his advice for living life, "Stop and smell the roses." Debbie says he literally stopped to play with some flowers when he got to the other side.

“He’s chosen an urban location,” Debbie laughs. “That little rascal.”

Debbie has chosen to volunteer with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to coordinate the dozens of others like her who are spending thousands of hours protecting Emerson during his annual moult, a painful month-long process of shedding a layer of skin and fur.

“This is where he’s giving us a gift,” Debbie says. “We can talk about what to do to co-exist.”

The retired teacher is educating people who pass the location where Emerson is moulting to stay quiet (so the seal doesn’t get distracted) and observe the seal from a distance (so he can play where it’s safe). If the wild animal can stay away from interactions with the public, he won’t have to be moved from this place he keeps choosing to call home.

“And we can just have a good giggle,” Debbie says, as a small group of people watch Emerson play in the water and lie on the beach. “And appreciate the wonderment of nature.”

Posters encouraging Emerson to run for mayor have been popping up on hydro poles around the beaches were he’s been hanging out. They show a seal standing at a podium, wearing a suit and top hat, promising a platform of “fish for all” and a promise to turn roads into “nap zones.”

Rather than politics, Debbie is planning to write a children’s book about the seal. Like Emerson, she hopes it will entertain, educate and inspire.

“We’re all connected through Emerson,” Debbie says of the thousands of people who’ve seen the seal. “There is a special place for him in our hearts.” Top Stories

Robertson's hat-trick drives Stars to Game 3 win over Oilers

Jason Robertson's hat-trick goal midway through the third period broke a deadlock and proved to be the eventual winner as the Dallas Stars beat the host Edmonton Oilers 5-3 in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final to take a 2-1 series lead.

Stay Connected