Maternal and physical factors play a significant role in animal life-history variability, which means that large scale climate change has the potential to affect the size and dynamics of animal populations indirectly through maternal investment and directly through conditions that animals are exposed to. However, little is known about the effects of large-scale oceanographic events such as the El-Niño southern oscillation (ENSO) that influence productivity in the Southern Ocean and the abundance, quality and distribution of prey. The possible mechanisms by which physical factors and primary productivity could influence life-history traits, such as survival of apex predators, includes direct influences such as food availability and foraging success and indirect influences such as stored maternal investment and resource transfer during lactation. Here, we quantify the relative contribution of maternal investment and climate conditions at remote foraging sites to survival in the first year of life for southern elephant seals. We present evidence linking climate (ENSO) and variations in a key demographic parameter--first-year survival--and demonstrate that survival was highest during ENSO events and that the ability of mothers to store and acquire resources, which is typically related to ocean productivity, is the most important determinant of survival in the first year. This functional link provides valuable insights that can be used to model the responses of the seal populations to climate change scenarios.