Neil the Seal Goes Viral, Prompting Concern for His Welfare

Neil the Seal Goes Viral, Prompting Concern for His Welfare

A three-year-old Southern Elephant seal, affectionately dubbed Neil the Seal, has gone viral on the internet. An Instagram account with the handle @neiltheseal22 has amassed over 65,000 followers. The account documents the antics of juvenile Neil, who already weighs a whopping 1,300 pounds. However, wildlife experts have raised concerns about the seal’s safety in the face of his viral popularity. They are concerned that widespread interest in the large marine mammal could lead to safety concerns that threaten both Neil the Seal and humans.

There are only two species of elephant seal. Neil the seal is a Southern Elephant seal. This species lives in the waters of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions. Historically, both Southern Elephant seals and their cousins, the Northern Elephant seals, were hunted to near extinction. However, in recent years their numbers have seen significant rebounds.

Southern Elephant seals spend much of their time hunting in the open oceans. However, they periodically come to land to rest. These periods are known as “hauling out”. Neil the Seal has become viral for his engaging behaviors during haulouts in southern Tasmanian beach suburbs. There, he has made a woman late for work, had several run-ins with police, and melted hearts playing with traffic cones.

Neil the Seal was born in the area and has returned for the molting season. During the molting season, which is December through March for Southern Elephant Seals, these marine mammals shed their outer layer of skin and fur. While they molt, they come to land where it is warmer.

Neil the Seal has become popular on several social media platforms, including Instagram. His accounts were created by a Tasmanian local to help people learn about Neil the seal and other elephant seals like him. Since then, Neil the Seal has gained global attention. He was even featured in the New York Times.

Despite Neil the Seal’s adorable appearance, wildlife officials warn people to be cautious around the elephant seal. Weighing well over a thousand pounds, Neil the Seal can move much more quickly than his bulk would lead one to expect. Despite warnings, officials have already reported several worrying interactions between curious onlookers and the seal. Indeed, wildlife officials were forced to move Neil the Seal to a more secluded area in April of 2023. This was due to ongoing crowding and harassment of the seal by curious humans and dogs.

With Neil the Seal’s reappearance and viral popularity, officials are again warning the public to be respectful of the seal. They have reminded people that, despite his adorable appearance, Neil the Seal is still a wild animal.

In a statement to The Guardian, Professor of Marine and Antarctic Studies, Mary-Anne Lea, cited the case of Freya the walrus. Freya became famous after climbing aboard boats in Norway to bask in the sunshine. She quickly became adored by the public, who would gather to watch her doze and follow her every move. Despite pleas by wildlife officials, members of the public would approach the large animal. This led officials to issue warnings that they would have to consider euthanasia if people continued to approach Freya. Heartbreakingly, people ignored the official’s pleas. Freya the walrus was euthanized later in the year after being deemed “a persistent threat to human security.”

Now, wildlife experts worry that a similar fate may befall Neil the Seal. Indeed, interest in the Southern Elephant seal has prompted the person who runs his popular social media account to stop posting the seal’s location. A bio on Neil the Seal’s Instagram account reads, “I’m a Southern Elephant Seal who is back in Tassie… but shhh don’t tell my friends where I am.” A post to the account also asks those who encounter Neil the seal to be respectful and give the mammal “20m of space”. This corresponds to roughly 65 feet. Additionally, it is important to keep dogs leashed and close to you near wildlife.

Experts hope that once Neil the Seal reaches sexual maturity, he will relocate to one of three Southern Elephant seal breeding grounds. These breeding grounds can be found on Macquarie, Heard, and Maatsuyker Islands. Neil will reach sexual maturity at roughly 10 years of age. Until then, wildlife officials remind people that Neil the Seal mustn’t become accustomed to humans.

This article by Willow Lynn was first published by One Green Planet on 23 December 2023. Image Credit :David Gibbins/Shutterstock.

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