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Castaway on the Auckland Isles

I. — An Account of the Sea-Lion — and its Habits.*

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An Account of the Sea-Lion
and its Habits

It is universally understood that the seal is an amphibious animal, sleeping and frequently basking in the sun on shore, and finding and eating their food entirely in the water. Four flippers, on the underneath side (on which there is no fur, but a hard black skin), only sufficiently long to raise them so that their belly is clear of the ground, serve the purpose of legs and feet when on shore, and as propellers when in the water. They are clad with fur, which varies very much in texture and value. They are considerably sought after, both for their fur, and the skins of some species, which make a very superior leather; and they also yield a considerable quantity of valuable oil.

There are many species of seal (phoca), some of which are found in nearly all parts of the world beyond the limits of the tropics; but as man appears so they disappear, hence they are seldom seen but by navigators.

But the sea-lion, which I am about to describe, and to endeavour to convey some idea as to his habits, &c., is only found in high north or southern latitudes, and is perhaps never seen nearer the Equator than 48°.

* This account was originally written in seal's blood, as were most of Captain Musgrave's journals.

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The females are of a grey, golden buff, or beautiful silver colour, sometimes spotted like the leopard, and are called tiger seals. Their fur is about an inch long, not very soft, but very thick, and particularly sleek and smooth. Their nose resembles that of the dog, but is somewhat broader; their scent appears to be very acute. The eyes are large, of a green colour, watery, and lustreless; when on shore they appear to be constantly weeping. I have heard sealers say that they have a very sharp eye, and can see a great distance; but I beg leave to correct those who are of that opinion, for I have every reason to believe, and am fully convinced, that such is not the case. On the contrary, their eye is not sharp, neither can they see far when on shore; but, as I have already noticed, their sense of smell is very keen. In the water—for which element chiefly their eye is evidently formed—I have no doubt but they see well. The ears are particularly small, tapering, and are curled in such a manner as to exclude the water; and their sense of hearing is not very acute. The mouth, which is prodigiously large, is furnished with teeth, four of which (the canine teeth) are an immense size. I have seen one of these measuring 3⅞ inches long by 3½ in circumference at the base. On the upper lip, on each side, are thirty bristles (they seldom deviate from this number) of a hard horny nature, and resembling tortoiseshell in appearance, from 6 to 8 inches long, gradually decreasing as they approach the nose to 1½or 2 inches in length, and the regularity with which these bristles are arranged is strikingly admirable.

The females and young seals generally remain in the bays, and they appear to select bays which have wooded shores, most probably for the sake of the shelter which they and the long coarse dried grass afford, and which most likely they and their young require in those tempestuous regions, where only they are to be found; whilst during the greater part of the year the males, which are naturally much more hardy, remain outside, and fish amongst the page 143rocks along the sea coasts, where, judging from their condition when they come in, they fare by far the best.

The males, or—as we sailors call them—the bulls (although I believe they are more commonly designated dogs and bitches), are uniformly of a blackish grey colour. One of a medium size will measure about six feet from nose to tail (which latter is about three inches long), and about six or seven feet in circumference, and weigh about 5 cwt. They by far exceed these dimensions; I have seen one seal produce forty gallons of oil. The fur and skin are superior to those of the female, being much thicker; and the former finer from the shoulders backwards, though not so pretty. On the neck and shoulders he has a thicker, longer, and much coarser coat of fur, which may almost be termed bristles. It is from three to four inches long, and can be ruffled up and made to stand erect at will, which is always done when they attack each other on shore, or are surprised, —sitting, as a dog would do, with their head erect, and looking towards the object of their surprise; and in this attitude they have all the appearance of a lion; and adding the enormous teeth already described, which they invariably display on these occasions, gives them (in appearance) all the ferocity and formidableness which their name seems to imply.

They begin to come into the bays in the month of October (in the southern hemisphere), and remain until the latter end of February, each one selecting and taking up his own particular beat in a great measure; but sometimes there are several about the same place, in which case they fight most furiously, never coming in contact with each other (either in or out of the water) without engaging in the most desperate combat, tearing large pieces of skin and flesh from each other. Their skins are always full of wounds and scars, which, however, appear to heal very quickly.

From November until the beginning of February they lie in the sun a great deal, generally selecting a sand page 144or shingle beach to land and lie upon, and are easily killed during this season; for they frequently, when in the water, on seeing a man on shore, will land and charge him, or rather chase him if he will run away; but on facing the seal he will generally stand, when the man must go very quietly up to him and kill him; but sometimes, on the man facing him, he will retreat quickly into the water.

Another mode of getting them on shore, which during this season never fails, is to retire into the bush out of their sight, and imitate the lowing of a cow, which is the natural cry of a female seal. To kill them it is usual to strike them on the nose with a wooden club, and if hit in the proper place a very slight blow stuns them, when they must at once be stuck. This method of killing them is quite proper when they can be taken whilst asleep; but when they are not plentiful, and it is necessary to get them up out of the water in the manner described, the surest plan is to put a ball into their head, before moving towards them; then go up, give them a blow with a club, and stick them; for if they escape after getting a blow they will not be got out of the water in the same manner a second time, and it makes the others shy also. Although they are so ferocious amongst themselves, and so formidable in appearance, when attacked by man they will, as a general rule, escape into the water if possible; yet in striking them it is necessary to make sure of the blow, otherwise they are very likely to get hold of the party attacking them, in which case he will not escape without, at least, broken bones. It requires some nerve to face these monsters, which is only acquired by practice.

Having treated pretty fully on the character and habits of the males, or bulls, we must now turn our attention to the females, or cows, which are proportionately smaller and much more timid than the bulls. They will scarcely in any case confront a man; but, like the bulls, if not knocked down by the first blow, will snap and break anything that page 145happens to get between their powerful and capacious jaws. Their appearance I have already described.

In the latter part of December, and during the whole of January, they are on shore a great deal, and go wandering separately through the bush (or woods), and into the long grass on the sides of the mountains above the bush, constantly bellowing out in a most dismal manner. They are undoubtedly looking for a place suitable for calving in; I have known them to go to a distance of more than a mile from the water for this purpose. Their voice is exceedingly powerful, and in calm weather may be heard to the almost incredible distance of four and a half or five miles. Why they bellow so much before calving I am scarcely able to judge; but after that event, which does not take place until after the first of February,* it is undoubtedly to call their young, which they generally get into the water a few days after they are born, and assemble them in great numbers at some particular place, selecting such places as a small island or a neck of land with a narrow junction. This, no doubt, prevents them from getting straggled about and lost, as they do sometimes in the bush; while in these places they cannot very well get away without going into the water, to which, when very young, they have a great antipathy.

The means employed by the cow of getting her young into the water for the first time, and taking it to a place of safety, is, when witnessed, highly amusing.

It might be supposed that these animals, even when young, would readily go into the water—that being one of their natural instincts—but strange to say such is not the case; it is only with the greatest difficulty, and a wonderful display of patience, that the mother succeeds in getting her young in for the first time. I have known a cow to be three days getting her calf down half a mile, and into the water; and what is most surprising of all, it cannot

* They have only one calf at a birth.

page 146swim when it is in the water. This is the most amusing fact; the mother gets it on to her back, and swims along very gently on the top of the water; but the poor little thing is bleating all the time, and continually falling from its slippery position, when it will splutter about in the water precisely like a little boy who gets beyond his depth and cannot swim. Then the mother gets underneath it, and it again gets on to her back. Thus they go on, the mother frequently giving an angry bellow, the young one constantly bleating and crying, frequently falling off, spluttering, and getting on again; very often getting a slap from the flipper of the mother, and sometimes she gives it a very cruel bite. The poor little animals are very often seen with their skins pierced and lacerated in the most frightful manner. In this manner they go on until they have made their passage to whatever place she wishes to take the young one to; sometimes they are very numerous at these places, their numbers being daily augmented until the latter end of March. Here the young remain without going into the water again, for perhaps a month, when they will begin to go in of their own accord; but at first they will only play about the edge, venturing farther by degrees; and until they are three months old, if surprised in the water, they will immediately run on shore and hide themselves; but they always keep their heads out, and their eyes fixed on the party who has surprised them, imploring mercy in the most eloquent language that can be communicated by these organs.

During the months of February, March, and April, the cows are on shore the greater part of the time, and lie in the bush in mobs of from twelve to twenty together, at the places where their calves are assembled. They do not appear to have any particular time for going into the water to feed; and they allow their young to suck whenever they please; and when they are satisfied they immediately leave the cows and play in small groups, at some distance from the old ones. The mothers appear to take scarcely any page 147notice whatever of their young, which, added to the fact of their being so cruelly bitten sometimes, as already noticed, led me at one time to think that they had no natural affection for them. This, however, I found was quite a mistaken idea. One instance came especially under my notice of a cow whose calf had been killed and taken away from her, roaming about the place where she lost it, incessantly bellowing, and without going into the water—consequently going without food—for eight days. After the first few days her voice gradually became weaker, and at last could scarcely be heard. I made sure that she was dying. She survived it, however, and on the eighth day went into the water; but for more than a month afterwards she paid a daily visit to the spot, bellowing in the most doleful manner. I have cited this case, which is not an isolated one. It may be considered as the rule, not an exception.

Before they have their calves, or from the beginning of January, the cows lie sometimes in small mobs in the sun, as well as while giving suck, and there are generally one or two bulls in each mob; the latter leave the bays after the beginning of April. The cows are evidently by far the most numerous; they begin to breed when two years old, and have a calf when three years old; they carry their calves eleven months. Their teats are four in number, and are placed on the belly about equi-distant from each other and the flippers; the nipple (excepting when in the mouth of the young seal) recedes inwards, leaving nothing visible save a small black spot; thus there is nothing to obstruct or impede them when in the water. The teat is about as big as a person's little finger from the middle joint to the end.

The tongue of the seal is split, or rather has a notch in the end, about an inch deep, leaving a point on each, the only utility of which appears to be that of pressing out the teat when they are sucking.

When the young seals are about three months old they page 148leave off sucking, and, with the cows, leave the places where they were suckled; and now all the seals keep in the water nearly altogether in the daytime, and in the night they are on shore. They do not appear to choose any particular place for sleeping in, further than taking shelter in the bush, or in the long grass close to the water. They do not go far from the water, and sleep in small mobs of six or eight together; never going on shore until after dark, and going into the water again at the very peep of day. Sometimes the same mob will sleep in the same place for several nights in succession, if they are not disturbed; it may be thus ascertained where they are to be found.

About this time (i. e., May), or shortly after beginning to breed, the cows are very much troubled with vomiting, when small pebbles are often disgorged, which are very likely snapped up when catching fish on the bottom, and would at any other time have been digested. I have picked up a number of very remarkable little stones (if they are stones, for I have not as yet been able to ascertain) which have been brought up from the deep in this manner. On one occasion I found a deposit of these curiosities six and a half feet below the surface of the earth—or, more strictly speaking, the decayed vegetable matter of which the place was composed; and some of them are particularly curious and pretty. And supposing that the accumulation of this decomposed vegetable matter is half the sixteenth of an inch (which is scarcely possible) every year, it is more than 2,500 years since they were brought up from the sea, and vomited there by a sea lioness. I would describe some of them, but as the matter is foreign to my subject I will at once return to it. I am inclined to think that these seals prey more upon small fish than large ones, and they very frequently eat crabs and mussels, and they will sometimes seize upon birds, such as the widgeon and duck; but they do not prey upon each other, neither will they eat anything that they find dead. Their greatest speed in the water does not page 149exceed twenty miles an hour; and when going through the water at the height of their speed they have the extraordinary power of stopping themselves instantaneously. Sometimes, when anything surprises them, as a boat for instance, they will come towards it at the top of their speed, and when within perhaps a yard of it, they will, without the slightest diminution of velocity, raise their head and half their body out of the water, and at once become motionless as a statue. I have known bulls to attack a boat, but this is not a frequent occurrence.

When they are on shore they can run surprisingly fast; on a hard, smooth beach, they can run nearly as fast as a man; and in the bush, or long grass, they can get along much faster. They can also climb up rocky cliffs and steep slippery banks which would be inaccessible to man, and very often they fall backwards down these places and bruise themselves severely. In conclusion, I must observe that the above notes have been deduced from experience gained entirely in the southern hemisphere, in latitude about 51° S. But I have not the least doubt but my remarks may be applied to the same species of seal in the northern hemisphere in the corresponding seasons. Perhaps few persons have had so good an opportunity of observing the habits of this animal as myself; as I had during the prosecution of a voyage to the Southern Ocean (partly for sealing purposes) the misfortune to be shipwrecked, and left upon one of those desolated islands for a period of twenty months, and our food during that time consisted almost entirely of seals' flesh; and I may add that that of the suckling, which is the best, is far from being unpalatable; and if it could be had with the necessary accompaniment of meat, it might be made a most delicious dish.

It will be obvious from a perusal of these observations that the months of February, March, and April, are the best suited for sealing purposes. May and June are also good months; but the whole business of the day's killing page 150must be done at the very dawn of day, so that it is necessary to know where different mobs are encamped, and a party of men must be at the place where each mob is to be attacked at the peep of day, as they nearly all go into the water within a few minutes of the same time.

Thomas Musgrave.