We studied lactation behaviour in relation to pup growth in southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) at Macquarie Island, and compared harems in areas of high and low human presence to determine if there is an effect attributable to human activities, including scientific research. Pup weaning mass, a known correlate of first-year survival, was positively influenced by suckle bout durations during early and middle lactation and by maternal aggression during late lactation; no other behavioural variables were associated with weaning mass. In the area of high human presence, we observed from a distance the behaviour of mother-pup pairs directly before, during, and after visits to harems by other researchers. Alertness was raised threefold in the presence of people but quickly returned to predisturbance levels after their departure; there were no significant short-term effects on other behavioural variables. In the areas of high and low human presence, we observed the undisturbed behaviour of the seals in the absence of other people. No significant differences in any behavioural variables examined were found, indicating no long-term changes in behaviour resulting from human presence. Human disturbance therefore appears not to have significantly contributed to the population decline observed at Macquarie Island, but the conclusion requires caution given the fairly low power of our analyses.