In February 1947 in the ‘villa’ at Leith Harbour, Neil
Rankin, the author of Antarctic Isle, one of the finest books
on South Georgia (the plates for the illustrations of which were developed
in the X-ray film tanks of my hospital) asked me, ‘Doc! Can you
keep a secret?’.
He had just returned from a further trip with his two-man Shetlander
crew in his converted ex-RNLI lifeboat Albatross to the western
end of the island. Their particular objective was the study and recording
of the albatross colonies in and around the Bay of Isles.
I naturally replied that I thought I could, and he explained that they
had sighted five pairs of fur seals at Bird Island.
The reason for discretion was very apparent. The fur seals of South
Georgia were extinct and had been since the middle of the 19th century
following the slaughter inflicted by American, British and French sealers
once the discoveries of Cook Bellingshausen and Palmer, amongst many
others, became widely known. Their descriptions of beaches packed with
a myriad of both elephant and fur seals and their characteristic groups
of bulls, female harems and young aroused a hurricane of cupidity and
the prospect of financial gain.
The development in New England, USA, in the late 18th century of a
new process for the trimming of the guard hairs of seal pelts coupled
with a massive increased demand for oils for lighting and lubrication
led to a Southern Ocean gold rush and an apocalyptic slaughter of the
inhabitants of the shores of the sub-Antarctic islands. A significant
stimulus was a nearly insatiable market for fur products, hats, shoes
and felt in China.
The numbers involved testifying to the almost incredible population
figures. The numbers of skins procured totalled millions. The tallies
of cargoes of individual ships, such as Palmer’s Hero
with 50,000 on board her 70 tons, are almost unbelievable. But these
ravages are well documented, and while the elephant seal populations
survived in significant numbers, by the time sub-Antarctic whaling began
in the early 20th century the fur seal populations even showed no signs
of recovery towards their earlier numbers until a sudden explosive return
in the second half of the 20th century.
Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that in the narratives of Antarctic
expeditions fur seals are conspicuous in the absence of reported sightings
and encounters. Shackleton had no problem with them at Elephant Island
or South Georgia. Indeed, while living in South Georgia it was a pleasant
activity to visit and observe the activities of the elephant seal colonies
while enjoying an entirely risk-free perambulation of one’s local
shore - though it should be noted that for the majority of whalers little
time was available to do so as the ever-driving quest to make even more
penge remained paramount.
a return to South Georgia 40 years on, memory of Rankin’s observation
evoked an almost incredulous reaction. The pugnacious aggressive nature
of the animals, even more than their proliferation on favourite walk
sites, combined with their ability, at least for short distances, to
move faster than humans, led to a feeling of a lost paradise. Where
the gentle prodding of a rearing elephant bull was basically an entertainment,
paralleled by gentle stimulation of ‘weaners’ slothfully
working off their reserves of fat in preparation for their first venture
into the ocean, the fact that fur seal bites can be seriously damaging
as well as introducing some distinctively unwelcome bacteria is not
to be lightly discounted.
Compared with Rankin’s five, their numbers represented an almost
unbelievable population explosion in the waters up to 50 miles off the
island. Waters replete with gambolling animals implied a conservative
population estimate of half a million for the island as a whole, taking
no account of the numbers already noted in similar quantities at other
sub-Antarctic sites. And this for an animal which for nearly a century
had been firmly declared to be extinct!
In the succeeding 20 years at each subsequent visit a further dramatic
increase in numbers has been evident, and the global population is variously
assessed at between 2 and 3 million.
Questions have been raised as to whether such numbers are having a
deleterious effect on other elements of the food chain, with consequent
impact on bird and cetacean numbers. As so often, such alarms are largely
conjectural, and sometimes stimulated by the unbelievable density of
the numbers to be observed on the beaches and in the sea during the
Yet one is tempted to wonder if in fact that present apparent population
explosion is in fact not one at all and what we are observing now is
numerically little different to the incredible fecundity observed by
Cook and the sealers. A reversion to the potential of the rich waters
of the Southern Ocean to foster enormous populations of given species
– as witness the vast biomass of krill and penguin rookeries such
as the 300,000 Kings on Salisbury Plain, South Georgia.
I have to admit that I resent the loss of liberty imposed by the fur
seal domination of the beaches, but this is of course well compensated
by the sheer spectacle of nature in the raw. Further evidence that Darwin
was right. But the opportunity to watch the young gambolling in the
waters around the Brutus at Prince Olaf Harbour and at the
same time recording their picturesque poses while contemplating their
next assault on intruding humans is some compensation.
One can also learn from them. During a little rest and relaxation while
visiting the whalers’ graves at Leith Harbour, one contemplated
the football pitch over which one might have roamed in total impunity
and without a thought of risk. The fur seal community down by the oil
tanks was in full swing. Harem bulls attempted to maintain their status,
crushing the odd pup in the process. Apparently bereft pups lay around
under rusty machinery, and females ranged up and down the beach just
back from foraging and calling plaintively. Suddenly the nearest pup
mewed and a reunion feed was quickly effected.
A truth came to me: while it appears to be the large and to be avoided
in any close contact (but that applies to all fur seals, young and old
- and they do smell!) bulls who might seem to dominate the scene, as
always it was the women who were running the show.
Extinct? Just where were they for a century and more? There is no doubt
at all that they are back now.
© Michael Gilkes 2007. Michael Gilkes, FRCS, FRCOphth., FRGS,
was the Station Medical Officer and Ship’s Surgeon at Leith Harbour
and on board Southern Harvester during 1946-48. He is also
an ophthalmic surgeon, a founder Friend of SPRI, founder member of the
James Caird Society, and member of the Royal Cruising Club.