Fur Seals

by Michael Gilkes


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon



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.

On 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 breeding season.

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.





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