- Historic Sites
“The Seals Are About Gone…”
The crusading conservationist thought he had saved the fur seal from extinction. Then from the Pribilofs, home of the last great herd, came an alarming telegram:
June 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 4
Unlike the bulls, the cows went frequently from the rookery into the water to bathe and to feed, their search for food taking them long distances, for absences of two or three days, sometimes longer. To Elliott, one fat, round-eyed pup left bleating in the rookery looked like any other, but a nursing mother returning from a foray recognized the cry of her young, though ten thousand pups were chorusing at once. She would suckle no other; if she did not return, her pup starved. The new-born pups could not swim. Elliott noted that they never even ventured into puddles on the rocks until they were five or six weeks old. After that they cautiously experimented in the wash of the surf, and gradually, as the season progressed, they became expert swimmers, unafraid of the roughest surf.
The bachelors—seals too young or too weak to accumulate harems—herded by themselves on any free stretch of beach or around the edges of the rookeries; if they made the mistake of putting so much as a flipper on the breeding grounds, the harem-masters savagely drove them off.
The whole scene during the height of the season was one of incredible confusion, the rookeries jammed with bulls and their families, the young bachelors restlessly travelling about in heavy platoons, the pups playing endlessly together or sleeping in tight little jjods, while a chorus of constant bellowing, chuckling, piping, and bleating; carried far out to sea.
From the bachelor class, constituting a third to a half of the total herd, came the most marketable pelts: those of the three-year-olds. Every morning during sealing season, long before daybreak, Elliott crawled from his blankets to accompany the native Aleuts on the daily seal drive. Carefully trained in their work by their former Russian overseers, the Aleut crew quietly approached the bachelor herds and aroused the sleepers. The drive to the killing grounds then began, with only two or three men required to guide and secure as many as a thousand of the docile creatures at a time. They permitted the seals frequent rests to cool off, as heating injured their fur. During these rest periods the awkward, shambling march ceased, the herders stepped back, and the seals stopped in their tracks to fan themselves with their hind flippers. Rested and cooled, they took up again their march to death and the markets of the world. At the killing ground the drivers culled all seals too old, too young, or with damaged skins, and any females accidentally included in the drive. The killing gang then struck down each selected male with a heavy blow from a club, dispatched him with a knife, and skinned him on the spot. An official of the sealing company and the resident government agent kept a daily record of the number and size of the skins taken in each drive.
Around the end of July the systematic arrangement of the harems broke up; the worn-out breeding bulls dragged off to the sea; cows, pups, and young bulls roved over the rookeries in restless companies. In September the cows began staying for long intervals in the surf, while the pups grew at home in the breakers; and finally, with the coming of cold weather, the herd gradually departed for warmer waters to the south. (Most of them would winter along the continental shelf of the United States and Canada.) From the bluff, on a day in December, 1872, Elliott watched the last stragglers take off on their long migration.
When Elliott turned back to the village it was not to bachelor quarters, for somehow during his first six weeks on St. Paul he had found time to fall in love with and marry eighteen-year-old Alexandra Melovidov, the pretty daughter of a former Russian official. They lived, he wrote a friend, in “a nice house with a good library and an excellent kitchen,” similar to the new frame houses built by the Alaska Commercial Company for the Aleut workers. To Elliott, the company houses were far superior to the half-underground “barrabakies” that formerly sheltered the natives from the howling winds. Absolutely oblivious of physical hardships himself, and completely absorbed in his two loves—seals and Alexandra—Elliott was not aware that the company stinted on coal and the natives shivered in their flimsy cottages. But he did notice that both company officials and government agents were remiss in the matter of charting the rookeries and taking a census of the herd. Without these operations, how could any increase or decrease be determined?
To correct the oversight, Elliott decided to make the maps and take the census himself; thereafter the lessees, whose profits depended on the number of marketable three-year-olds, could be instantly aware of and report any changes. Not until long afterward—when it was all but too late—did Elliott realize how naïve he had been.