Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/Sea-Lions and Fur-Seals



THE animals of the seal-kind include two groups or families which, with a general similarity of structure, exhibit quite distinct features in their appearance, habits, and movements. The order to which they belong is named Pinnipedia, from the structure of the paws, which are webbed down to the ends of the fingers, and in one of the families beyond them. The families are the Phocidæ, or true seals; and the Otariidæ, eared seals, sea-lions, or sea-bears. Two articles of the same name but very different qualities are derived from them and form important commercial wares. Seal-skin from the true seal has short, bristly hairs, and is used for trunk-covers, coats, caps, gloves, etc.; seal-skin from the eared seals is the soft, fine, glossy fur which the ladies prize so highly, and which has an important place in our luxurious winter wardrobes. These animals are carnivorous mammalia, and breathers of the air; while they hunt their food in the water, they must live out of it; hence they are found most frequently near the water, on the rocks of the coast, or floating on cakes of ice. In connection with the walrus, they have been aptly described by some writers as a kind of marine bears. Their bright, intelligent-looking faces are familiar in all our zoölogical collections, and their sports and antics are always amusing, and never fail to collect a crowd wherever they can be observed.

The true seals live in the northern seas. They are the main reliance of the Eskimo for his support, and supply him with food, PSM V34 D345 The seal phoca vitulina.jpgFig. 1.—The Seal (Phoca vitulina). light, fuel, clothes, thread, strings, and leather. The best-known species is the common seal (Phoca vitulina, Fig, 1), which is common in the European seas, and is often seen in New Brunswick and along the New England coast. It is brownish above and white beneath, mottled, pied, or marbled, and has a handsome hair, which is much prized by the Indians.

The Greenland seal (Phoca groenlandica, Fig. a), also called, from the very conspicuous manner in which the fur of the adult is colored, the harp seal, is the animal of which the Eskimos make the most use. The male is grayish-white with black markings, the female brownish with black, and the young snow-white. The animals live in herds on the floating ice along the Greenland coast, and are sometimes PSM V34 D345 The greenland or harp seal phoca groenlandica.jpgFig. 2.—The Greenland or Harp Seal (Phoca groenlandica). carried to Labrador, Newfoundland, and even to England; and they have recently been shown, by Dr. C. Hart Merriam ("Popular Science Monthly," vol. xxvii, p. 140), to be very abundant in the St. Lawrence River as far up as the Saguenay.

The hooded seal (Stemmatopus cristatus, Fig. 3) is distinguished from the other species by a membranous or muscular sac on the back of the head, which is penetrated by chambers communicating with the nose, and may be inflated with air when the nostrils are closed. The marks of distinction between the true seals (Phocidæ) and the sea-lions (Otariidæ) are very clear. The most obvious mark is the, ears: the true seals have no external ear; the sea-lions have ears that can be seen very plainly.

Hence is derived the scientific name of the family, which PSM V34 D346 The hooded seal stemmatopus cristatus.jpgFig. 3.—The Hooded Seal (Stemmatopus cristatus). signifies having ears, or eared. The whole external appearance and the structure of their limbs are also different. The true seal has hardly any neck; his head and trunk, closely connected, are short, while his loins are of full length; his body is so round that his little hands can hardly touch the ground; the hands themselves are closely bound up with the body, so that hardly more than from the wrist out is free; and the hind-feet, connected with the tail, are stretched out backward. The confinement of his limbs unfits him for movement on the land, and his progress is nothing more than a series of awkward bumps and wriggles, in which the body is never raised from the ground. His situation is very different in the water, where he can use his toes like the blades of a screw-propeller, work his body to the right or left, up or down, at pleasure, rise to the surface or dive to the bottom, and, his hands furnishing him an excellent system of steerage, direct his movements with admirable precision.

The sea-lion, having a head with pointed ears, "looking like the head of a dog with his ears cut off," large eyes, whiskers, a long neck, and a body raised upon its hind and fore limbs several inches from the ground, appears upon the land more like a land animal, while it is fully as much at home in the water as the seal. It is much more at home on the land, where its whole body is singularly lithe and flexible, and it can run nearly as fast as a man can, and get along better in a thick bush, can climb rocky ledges and steep, slippery banks. Both in water and on land it assumes a great variety of attitudes. Dr. Murie, describing its motions, says: "At one moment the entire body presents a long, cylindrical, tapering cone; in another the body seems foreshortened, and the head and neck thrust out turtle-fashion, to a length as astonishing as unexpected to any visitor who may chance to be near; at other times the chest and abdomen become deep, and laterally flattened, while the back is arched like that of a defiant cat. And so, waking and sleeping, walking or swimming, there is a ceaseless change of relation in the figure and proportion of the parts. This does not depend on mere change of attitude, but also on the unusually lithe and mobile nature of the entire spinal column and ribs, furnished as these are with an abundance of cartilaginous material and fibro-elastic ligaments."

The Otaria has generally thirty-six teeth, with canines and incisors of enormous size, so that when they close upon each other "anything that may happen to come between them is held as in a vise," and small molars, so solid that sailors have sometimes mistaken them for flints. According to Mr. J, W. Clark, of Cambridge, whose "Davis Lecture" on these animals at the London Zoölogical Gardens condenses a mass of information about them, "The Otaria, having caught its prey, holds it in its mouth by means of its powerful canines and incisors, and, raising its head, swallows it whole. When it has caught a fish too large to be thus disposed of, it has been seen to give its head a sudden twist, so as to break off a portion, which it swallows rapidly. It then dives into the water, picks up the other portion, and repeats the tearing process until the last fragment is devoured. Their food consists of fish, mollusca, crabs, and sea-fowl, especially penguins, which they catch in a most ingenious way. They lie motionless in the water, with only a small portion of their nose above the surface. This attracts the attention of the bird, which mistakes it for something eatable, and, approaching to catch it, falls a prey to the craft of its adversary." They have also the habit of swallowing pebbles, of which more than twenty pounds, some of them weighing half a pound, have been taken from one animal. The sailors say that this is for ballast, and a story is told of a female seal that was seen teaching her cub to swallow the pebbles; while another story, by an officer of the British navy, is of a sea-lion that was seen "discharging ballast."

The breeding habits of the sea-lions, as they are described by several authors, among them Mr. J. A. Allen, in the "Harvard Bulletin," and Mr. H. W. Elliott, in his report on the Pribylov group of islands, are extremely curious. They frequent solitary islands, away from inhabited coasts, in large numbers, and are supposed generally to return to the same place, or near it, year after year. Here they occupy the spaces between high-water mark and the foot of the cliffs—to which the sailors have given the name of "rookeries"—using the beach as a playground for the pups, and fixing their sleeping-places on the tops of the cliffs.

Only the old males or "married seals," and the full-grown females or "mothers," are allowed upon the rookeries. The youngseals—the young males are called "bachelors"—are left to swim about in the water, or are allowed to retire behind the rookeries to the uplands back of the grounds that the old seals have appropriated to themselves. Communication between their upland haunts and the sea is given them by appointed paths, from which they are not permitted to stray to either side. The rookeries are haunted only by a few stragglers during the winter, but at the beginning of spring the older and chief males of the herd visit the place as if on a tour of inspection, swimming around cautiously, then, if all seems safe, climbing upon the rocks and examining everything carefully. The company increases very slowly till about the first of June; then, if the weather has become warm, the bull-seals come up in large numbers and select their "claims," consisting of a plot of ground about ten feet square for each animal, which he must defend against all comers. Desperate fights often take place for the possession of these little plots, at the end of which the vanquished seal withdraws humbly, while the victor quietly takes possession of his conquest. It is said, according to Mr. Clark, "that occasionally those few males who have been vanquished in all their encounters, and are therefore unable to obtain a resting-place or a wife, retire together to some distant beach, there to bury their shame, far from the society of their fellows, where they sit together gloomily, grievously wounded in body and in temper." The cow-seals arrive in about two weeks after their lords have taken possession of the grounds and selected the places for their harems, and a "universal, spasmodic, desperate fighting" takes place among the bulls. As the females come up, they are met by the "bachelors," whose duty it is to escort them to the beach and drive them up on the rocks as fast as they make their appearance. Some of them seem to be looking for some particular male, and will climb upon the rocks and call out and listen. As soon as the female has got upon the sand, the nearest male addresses her with a noise like the clucking of a hen, bows to her and coaxes her, until he gets between her and the water, when his manner changes and he begins to drive her up with angry growls. He is not yet sure of her, however, for the seals in the next line above him are on the watch to steal the most desirable prizes that their more fortunately situated fellows have captured. They take them in their mouths as cats do their kittens. Sometimes two seals contend for the same female at once, and in this case she gets terribly lacerated and sometimes torn in two. When the distribution of females has been finished, the arrangement is permanent. Each bull-seal keeps the mastery over his twelve or fifteen wives if he is in one of the front rows, five to nine if he is in a back row, and allows no intrusion on his domain. One old bull is mentioned by Mr. Elliott that had forty-five females under his charge.

The pups are born a few hours after the mothers have landed; each mother bringing forth one, seldom twins. The mothers show but little fondness for their young, but can distinguish their cries among the thousands, and each will suckle no other than her own. The pups begin to take to the water when they are about a month old, clumsily at first, but soon becoming accustomed to the element. The rookery at the Pribylov Islands is broken up during the last days of July and the first week in August, The young have then become able to take care of themselves, and are abandoned by their mothers, who give themselves up to lounging in the waves. The "married seals," who have been constantly at their posts and restlessly active for three months without taking food or water, go down to the sea to feed and wash. Notwithstanding their long fast and hard work, they are not emaciated, but come out in good condition, having sustained life all the time by absorption of the thick stores of fat hidden under their skins. The mothers continue to idle, and the pups and "bachelors" to sport and frolic, till the storms of autumn begin to come on, when they all depart for warmer latitudes, after which they give no account of themselves till the next spring.

Dr. Gray, of the British Museum, made out nine genera and seventeen species of eared seals. He based his distinctions too often on insignificant differences, and erred to excess. Mr. Clark recognizes but nine species, and includes them all in the single genus Otaria. While the true seals confine themselves to cool latitudes, the Otariæ bear warmth and appear to be sensitive to changes of temperature, avoiding extreme cold. In the Atlantic Ocean they are found only in the extreme southern part, beginning at the mouth of the PSM V34 D349 The northern sea bear otavia ursina.jpgFig. 4.—The Northern Sea-Bear (Otaria ursina). Rio de la Plata, and extending thence all around the coasts of South America. They are common on the coast of California, along the Aleutian Islands to the coast of Japan, and in the Pribylov Islands, in Bering Sea, their best-known resort. They are found around the coast of New Zealand, the Auckland Islands, Tasmania, and the south and east coasts of Australia, at Kerguelen's Land and the Crozets, and near the Cape of Good Hope. Most of the skins found in the market are credited to the Falkland Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Pribylov Islands.

The best-known species is the northern sea-bear (Otaria ursina, Fig. 4), which inhabits the Pribylov Islands. It frequents those islands in enormous numbers, their whole seal population being estimated at between five and six millions. The noise of this multitude is described as like the booming of a cataract, so loud as to warn vessels at sea of the proximity of land, and the smell as almost insupportable. The animal is covered with a long, flattened, moderately coarse hair, under which is a dark, long, fine, silky fur, the valuable seal-skin fur of the market.

PSM V34 D350 Stellers sea lion otaria stelleri.jpg

Fig. 5.—Steller's Sea-Lion (Otaria Stelleri'),

Steller's sea-lion (Otaria Stelleri, Fig. 5) is a larger species, a full-grown male measuring twelve feet in length, and occasionally sixteen feet, and weighing a thousand pounds. It lives not only in remote and secluded places, like the northern species, but also by thickly inhabited coasts, where it enters the bays and rivers, and even plays around the shipping. It is much more timid than the fur-seal—which shows no fear of man—and "hurries into the water at the first alarm, and there sits, with his head and neck raised above the waves, roaring as loudly as possible, till the intruder is out of sight. Its roar is described as deep and grand, like the howling of a gale through the branches of a forest or rigging of a ship." The species is found on both coasts of the Northern Pacific Ocean, and is the animal which inhabits the "Seal Rocks" of the harbor of San Francisco, and, protected by the law, forms one of the attractions of the city. Its under-fur is so scanty, short, and fine as to be of no use for clothing; but the skin makes an excellent leather, the intestines are used to make water-proof frocks, the whiskers are sold to the Chinese for ornaments, and the flesh, the blubber, the lining of the throat, the skin of the flippers, the stomach, and some of the internal organs, are put to valuable uses.

The southern, or Cook's sea-lion (Otaria jubata, Fig. 6), is found around the coasts of South America from Peru to the Rio de la PSM V34 D351 Southern sea lion otaria jubata.jpgFig. 6.-Southern Sea-Lion (Otaria jubata). Plata. Its specific name is derived from its possession of a mane, or long hair covering its neck and shoulders, which is developed only in the male when he is fully adult. The fur is only sparsely developed in the young, and disappears as the animal grows older.

The Falkland fur-seal (Otaria falklandica), a small species of not more than four feet in length, inhabits the same localities as the jubata. Its habits are identical with those of the northern fur-seal, and its skins, with their thick and soft under-fur, are considered more valuable than those coming from any other region. A similar if not identical species formerly existed in the Australian and New Zealand waters, but it has been exterminated by wasteful hunting, and a correspondent wrote to Mr. Clark a few years ago, "I should as soon expect to meet a sea-lion on London Bridge as on any one of the islands in Bass's Strait." But little is known about the sea-lions of the Cape of Good Hope, which, however, furnish sixty or seventy thousand skins annually to the London market. A reckless system of hunting is tolerated, and the animals are disappearing.

The capture of the seals on the Pribylov Islands is carefully controlled by wise governmental regulations; consequently the animals thrive and are kept up in numbers, while they are fast disappearing in consequence of indiscriminate slaughter from all other quarters. The Russians established a fur company on these islands immediately after they were discovered, which slaughtered the animals recklessly for thirty years, without any regard to the danger of exterminating them. They began to diminish visibly about 1817, and in 1836 appeared in only one tenth of their former numbers. Regulations were then adopted to limit the slaughter, which have been accepted and enforced by the United States since the islands came into our possession. Only the young males or "bachelors" are allowed to be killed, during June, July, September, and October, and not more than one hundred thousand of them in each year. The "rookeries" must not be molested. The young seals are started from their haunts near the rookeries and driven over the country to the place of slaughter, which is fixed at such a distance as to obviate the danger of the older animals being alarmed by the disturbance or troubled by the odors of the slaughter. The driving is a very tedious process, and is hard upon the seals, for they become heated very easily, when the fur is spoiled, or get exhausted and die on the road. Four per cent of the flock are sometimes lost in this way. The seals are allowed to rest and cool after reaching the killing-ground, and are then dispatched in droves of about one hundred at a time. Only the fittest are slaughtered, all the others being allowed to go back to the sea. One blow on the head with a club of hard wood is generally sufficient to kill. A knife is then thrust into the vitals, and the carcass is laid aside till about a thousand have been collected, when the process of skinning begins. The skins are sent home salted, to be cured and converted into what is called "seal-skin." "It is difficult," says Mr. Clark, "to conceive how that beautiful article of dress can ever be manufactured out of the very unattractive object the skin presents at this juncture. It is hard and unyielding as a board, and the stiff, coarse hairs cover the fur so completely that its very existence might be unsuspected." The important point is to separate these hairs from the fur. They used to be pulled out one by one, till it was found that the roots of the hair were more deeply seated than those of the fur, when a cheaper and more expeditious process was adopted. The skins are now pared down on the wrong side till the roots of the hairs are cut off, when they are easily brushed away, and the fur, of varying shades of light-brown, is left in little curls. The curls become untwisted in the dyeing, and the fur assumes its well-known smooth appearance.

The seal colonies of the Pribylov Islands were leased by the Government of the United States in 1870 for twenty years to the "Alaska Commercial Company," for an annual rent of fifty thousand dollars, and a tax on each skin taken. The details of the slaughter are carefully regulated, so as to promote the well-being and perpetuation of the colony, and make it probable that, unless some unforeseen disaster befalls it, it will never be less productive than it is now.

The seals of the Greenland seas were hunted a few years ago by fleets from Peterhead, Scotland. At present, Dundee is the only port in Great Britain that sends out vessels to the seal and whale fishings. Wherever the animals frequented, they were found, like the eared seals of the Pribylov Islands, in great herds together; but would collect in the largest numbers in stormy weather, when they would seek the places free from ice, and there gambol lustily. The older seals, according to Mr. James Thornton, who derived his knowledge from frequent conversations with the ship-masters, pursue their prey with great rapidity, and when they come across a shoal of herrings, consume innumerable multitudes of them. They become very drowsy when basking in shoals on the edge of the ice with their young, and in this state are surprised by the boats' crews. Most of the victims are secured by clubbing, as at the Pribylov Islands, but the aid of the harpoon is sometimes called in when the old ones show fight. The Greenlanders, in hunting for seals, find a hole in the ice to which the animal has to come up to breathe. As soon as he puts his nose up, a harpoon is sent into it; the surrounding ice is then broken up and the victim is hauled in and dispatched with a club. The harp-seal is far more idle and wary than the common seal. "It allows itself to be approached by a small boat sufficiently near to be struck by a harpoon with a bladder attached by a long string; the moment the animal is pierced he starts off and dives, but the bladder is a tell-tale, and he is followed and repeatedly struck by an unbarbed lance until quite exhausted, when the man dispatches and takes possession of his prize."

The West Indian seal (Monachus tropicalis) was observed by Columbus in 1494, and has since been noticed at scattering times, but the traces of it had recently been nearly lost. Prof. Henry A. Ward, when on a visit to Yucatan and the Triangles in 1886, found several specimens of the animal, and was able to examine it in the adult and fœtal conditions. According to his account in the "American Naturalist," the head is large and prominent, and the whole body chunky, with the bones deeply imbedded in flesh and fat. The eye of the adult is very dull, having over the cornea a film which gives it "much the same appearance as a glass eye or a marble that has been so much handled as to lose its polish." The whole character of the seal is one of tropical inactivity; and this was exemplified by the presence of a growth of minute algæ on the backs and flippers of some of the animals that made them look green. They were never seen to raise their heads above the line of the back, as the harbor seal is accustomed to do. The animals showed no dread of man on the first approach, but looked lazily at the observers, perhaps uneasily shifting their position, and then dozing off into a restless sleep. But, as the

PSM V34 D354 Eskimos spearing seals.jpg

Fig, 7.—Eskimos spearing Seals.

men drew nearer, they would rouse themselves, bark, "and uneasily hitch themselves along a few paces." At first they offered little resistance, but on the second day showed fight when attacked in groups. Except for a little savage conduct when in panic, their whole bearing was one of indecision. They showed but little of the curiosity regarding a boat and its occupants which is usually so marked among seals, and did not disport themselves in play.

The business of hunting the Greenland seals, like the whale-fishery, has been injured by the "improvements" that have been introduced into it. Screw-steamers may be more efficient in the chase than the old-fashioned sailing-vessels, but they have made the seals "wild," and have driven them further north and out of the open waters, into regions to which these vessels can hardly penetrate.