“The Seals Are About Gone…”

Every spring more than a million and a half Alas-kan fur seals “haul up” out of the waters of the Bering Sea onto the rocky shores of the Pribilof Islands, to rest, to give birth, to breed, to moult, and then when winter comes, to take to the sea again, in an ages-old routine. That this vast herd still exists to come to its chosen homeland for the brief weeks of an arctic summer is largely due to the lifelong efforts of a crusading artist-naturalist, Henry Wood Elliott.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1846, Elliott grew up in an age that calmly permitted the wanton destruction of the passenger pigeon, the Eskimo curlew, the great auk, the elk, the wild turkey, and the buffalo. And for forty-five years after the United States acquired the Pribilof Islands in the Alaska purchase of 1867, it appeared that the same blind indifference, plus a frenzy for profit, would result in the extermination of the fur seal.

In the first two years of American ownership, various unauthorized sealing outfits took more than 200,000 fur-seal skins from the Pribilof rookeries. To halt this piracy the United States leased the islands to the Alaska Commercial Company, granting it the exclusive right to take sealskins (under government supervision) for a period of twenty years. The annual quota was to be 100,000 pelts.

No one knew whether that arbitrary quota would increase, maintain, or deplete the herd. For the strange truth was that although sealing had been practiced for hundreds of years—to the almost total extermination of every fur-seal herd in the world save this one—no definite knowledge existed about the fur seal beyond its appearance every summer by the millions on three of the Pribilof Islands, and in much smaller numbers on two or three Russian-held islands. To insure the highest possible returns from its new asset, the government needed a scientific study of the fur seal’s life cycle. In the spring of 1872 the Secretary of the Treasury appointed Henry Wood Elliott, a gifted young artist-naturalist of the Smithsonian Institution, as a special agent to undertake such a study.

 

Twenty-six-year-old Elliott had already seen much of his country while exploring the Northwest coast with the Russian-American Telegraph Expedition in 1865, and while serving as artist for the Hayclen Survey of the Wyoming Territory in 1869–70. Everywhere in his travels he saw trappers, hunters, “sportsmen,” needlessly killing game in quantities that threatened one day to destroy every wild creature in the country. Then, after the Alaska purchase, came reports of the slaughtering of the last remaining herd of fur seals. In the interests of science and conservation, Elliott welcomed the opportunity to study and report upon this valuable, defenseless sea mammal, and to do what he could to check its destruction.

A few weeks after his appointment Elliott was standing atop a rocky bluff on St. Paul Island, the most important seal island of the Pribilof group, peering through a foggy drizzle at the surf below. Every day for a week he had scrambled up this bluff and stood in the never-ceasing wind to watch seals swimming and diving just beyond the breaker line. Every day there were more of them out there, seemingly reluctant to come upon the land. At last, on this day—May 5—a phalanx of leaders came sweeping through the crashing breakers onto the beach. Shielding a pad of drawing paper from the mist as best he could, Elliott began recording in a series of drawings the life of the seals as it unfolded before him that spring, summer, and fall.

On the shaly beach the first of the breeding bulls were hauling up. The great creatures, heavy with fat from the winter’s feeding, but alert and belligerent, took the vantage places nearest the water, there to await the coming of the cows. A week or two after the arrival of these beachmasters, the “seal weather” set in. Gray banks of fog rolled over the islands, and the bull seals began swarming from the sea by the hundreds and thousands, filling the rookery acres, each bull lord of his own circle of ground. Once established with their harems, they would never leave their stations during the entire breeding season for a single instant, night or day, not even to feed or to drink.

 

In the first week of June the females began appearing in the surf. As they came ashore, in streak after streak of silvery brown, the waiting bulls met them and coaxed them toward their own domains. This touched off furious battles between the bulls, every animal desperate to get possession of at least one female, if not all within reach. The big fellows nearest the water line obtained the greatest number, some of them getting and holding as many as fifty wives in their harems. The females—gentle creatures only a fifth the size of their masters—stayed where they were pushed or tossed, unless carried off by a bull stronger than their original suitor. Within a few hours, or at most a day or two after arriving, each female dropped her pup in the thick of the crowded harem, where it was in considerable danger of being trampled by the clumsy bull. Soon after giving birth—since the female seals are bi-uteral—the cows bred again.