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19th Century American Whaling

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The Sea-Elephants of Kerguelen's Land.

W. H. Macy

August 1869
pp. 97-104

The Sea-Elephants of Kerguelen's Land.

      The great Island of Kerguelen, in the high latitudes of the Indian Ocean, more commonly called by the appropriate name "Desolation," has for nearly half a century past been visited by adventurous mariners from New London and other whaling ports who have hunted leviathan in the adjacent seas, and slaughtered the amphibious phocae on its sterile shores.

      The eastern coast of this island is comparatively easy of access, and affords well-sheltered harbors, where vessels may ride in perfect safety at all seasons of the year. But the seals and sea-elephants have been nearly exterminated on that side; and the comparatively small remnant of them have been driven to localities where all the resources of human art are hardly sufficient to reach them. These animals are exceedingly timid and wary; and as they multiply but slowly, a few seasons suffice to "work out" a beach where the stock may appear, at the time of its first discovery, to be inexhaustible.

      The scene of our story lies on the western, or "weather" coast of Desolation, where a slight indentation, or bight, is laid down on the more modern charts as "Bonfire Beach." We speak of a period when this shore of the island was, for the most part, a sealed book, even to enterprising navigators.

      Captain Joe Berkely, one of the most experienced of English sealers, who had made several successful voyages to Patagonia and the Crozettes, was then in command of the staunch, fast-sailing brigantine, Coeur de Lion, fitted out at Cape Town for a short cruise "on Desolation." Not finding the sea-elephants in sufficient numbers at their old haunts, he pushed on, doubled the south side of the island, and proceeded to explore for new hunting grounds. He trusted to the good qualities of his vessel, and to slants of weather, to enable him to "work a beach," even on an iron-bound lee-shore. Success was not to be obtained without incurring some risk; but a good "cut" or two, where the animals were numerous and undisturbed, would fill his brig and send him home to Cape Colony with flying colors.

      He found himself one wet misty morning much nearer the land than was desirable under the circumstances; for the roar of the breakers was distinctly heard; while the shore on which they dashed was hidden from view, and the lead gave no soundings. The wind had died away during the night; and his little vessel lay tossing and wallowing in the tumbling sea, which scarcely ever goes down in this part of the ocean.

      With hardly steerage-way on her, and the sound of the rollers each mo-


ment more and more startling, as she evidently drifted in-shore, it was not to be wondered at that Berkely became anxious and fidgety. He had already given orders to have the anchors clear for letting go, in case of shoaling his water, as the only salvation from shipwreck.

      But a sudden gust off the land filled his sails, and he had hardly time to trim the yards to it when the "woolly," as it is called, came howling down from the mountains, sweeping the mist like a scroll before it, and careening the brig to her bearings.

      "All right!" roared the captain, with his mind relieved of a burden of anxiety. "We'll make an offing this time, at any rate. But it's none too soon, for another hour's drift would have laid our bones in an ugly place. What are those on the rocks? Give me the glass; quick!"

      The captain paused not to admire the rugged sublimity of the scenery revealed by the lifting of the fog; but sweeping his telescope along the base of the cliffs, his eye dilated with professional pride, as he shouted:

      "There's our voyage, right in that bight! Elephants enough to fill the Coeur de Lion chock to her deck-beams! We might skin out a cargo there in a short time; but the next thing is, can we get it off?"

      "There's no landing for a boat, sir," said his mate.

      "That's true. No boat can be landed there now; though it may be done in some spells of weather, I have no doubt. But if we can obtain footing ashore and get the blubber, we might string it, and haul it off in rafts – by anchoring a boat outside the roller."

      "I think it's possible to land in that little cove to leeward of this high bluff," interposed Curran, the second officer, who had also shipped as "beach header," or commander of the shore parties. "If so, we'll find a way to climb over the rocks, and come down among them. Just put me ashore sir, with two men, and come back here in a month."

      "I will, if I can find a landing place. Pick your men, and get your traps ready."

      It was a common practice with sealers to put one, two, or more men ashore at any place where there was a prospect of successful hunting, and to pass on to other stations, leaving them on shore, sometimes, for several weeks. In this way, a cargo was frequently picked up.

      No time was lost in preparation, for the weather would not admit of delay. It was found that the swell was not very heavy in the little cove already spoken of. With some difficulty, a boat wormed her way in among the mazes of the "kelp," sufficiently near the rocks to put the three men ashore, with a small stock of provisions, and a coil of slender rope. This, with a change of clothing, and the necessary weapons for killing and skinning the sea-elephants, was sufficient outfit for Curran and his brother-adventurers. They were old hands at the business, and accustomed to rely upon their own resources.

      After a toilsome struggle, they succeeded in climbing the rocky barrier, and prepared, by means of the rope, to lower themselves and their effects down


the other side – where the descent was too precipitous to be made in any other manner.

      "We can all go down by the rope," said Shepard, the elder of the two subordinates, "but we can never get up again without help from above."

      "Never mind that," said Curran. "I can't believe that this beach is surf-bound all the time. There'll be slants of weather that boats can land. If not, the blubber must be rafted off; and then they can land in the cove, and haul us up the cliff again. The elephants must be killed, at any rate."

      Another glance at the animals below, and they no longer hesitated. The descent was accomplished with little difficulty; and all three soon stood in safety on the beach below.

      It was true, as they had supposed, that there was no escape for them by going back the way they had come, unless by having help from above.

      The place where they now stood was a segment of which the roaring surf formed the chord, while natural bulwarks of eternal rock towered above their heads all around the arc.

      Yet to those familiar with the character and mode of life of this class of mariners, it will not appear strange that, with the great object of their voyage in full view, they should thus turn their backs upon their vessel, and take the risk. They form a class akin to the whaleman, whose motto is, when his prey is in sight, "Go on, and trust to Providence to get off again."

      And especially is this the case, where a young ambitious subordinate, far removed from the eye of the commanding officer, is called upon to use his own judgment for the good of the voyage.

      Feeling his reputation for personal courage at stake, he generally errs on the side of rashness, rather than incur the imputation of over-cautiousness.

      For here were the great beasts which they had come to seek and slaughter, swarming by hundreds on the sterile shore. Heretofore undisturbed, it was only necessary for our hunters to use a little caution to secure a good season's work in this spot. Unconscious of danger, the animals merely raised their heads and stared at the intruders, rather with astonishment than fear.

      Curran fired his gun, as the signal previously agreed upon to inform those on board that he and his comrades had safely effected a lodgment in the promised land. With an answering flap of her bunting, the Coeur de Lion put her helm up, and stood off-shore to seek other localities where she might land more men.

      Very little driftwood could be procured; but a few pieces sufficed for the framework of a shanty large enough to shelter three men. Several sea-elephant hides stretched over it made it water-proof, and a banking up round it of "tussocks" or turf, which was to be found a little inland, near the base of the cliffs, secured sufficient warmth for a summer residence.

      There was no scarcity of water; for a cool stream flowed down from a fissure in the rocky wall, forming a dashing little cascade, which had been


seen and noted before landing. Provisions were in abundance, such as our hardy hunters could live upon.

      The king-penguins, whose name was legion, furnished eggs for the trouble of picking them up from the ground. At a pinch, their flesh could also be depended upon; while every voyager to those regions can attest how dainty a morsel is the sea-elephant's tongue. The animals were thus made to supply shelter, food, and fuel, as well as furnish part of the brig's cargo.

      The sea-elephant, or "elephant," as it is familiarly called by the hunters, is the largest animal of the seal family. It is destroyed solely for its oil, the skin being of no value. The name seems to be derived from the peculiar formation of its nose, or, to speak more properly, its upper lip. This, in the larger specimens, overhangs a little, and may be somewhat elongated at will into a sort of proboscis.

      This animal has no tusk projecting externally, and is by no means to be confounded with the sea-lion or walrus, which is peculiar to high northern latitudes, and to which it bears little resemblance. It is probably the largest of the mammalia, if we except the animals of the order cetaceae, or whales.

      The male of the sea-elephants is much larger than the female. The hunters distinguish the sexes by the terms "bull" and "cow;" while, by a strange misnomer, the progeny of the two is always a "pup." You never hear of a "calf" elephant.

      The fat, or blubber, for which they are hunted is sometimes six or seven inches thick on the back, a large specimen often yielding from four to six barrels of oil. But it is only at particular seasons, and during short periods, that animals of this size are to be taken. As the average yield of the cows is less than one barrel, an idea may be formed of the amount of labor required to make up a cargo for a large vessel.

      Very few of them are taken during the winter; but at the season of parturition, which begins at the end of August, and extends through September, the females come up from the sea, or, to use the professional word, "haul" in vast numbers. They remain on the beach until the young are strong enough to accompany them to sea. At this season they form in " pods," or herds; and each herd will have one or two patriarchal bulls.

      The cows, at this time, are easily slaughtered with the lance, and, if killed early in the "pupping season," so termed, are in fine condition.

      "Young bull season" follows in November and December. Only the males come on shore at this time, and these not of the largest class. Bulls of considerable size are, however, to be met with, and so on down to the little ones which had gone to sea at early spring, and which seem now to have been abandoned by their mothers.

      Unlike the fur and hair seal, the elephant is rarely, almost never, seen at any considerable distance from the land. It vanishes when it leaves the beach. At the regular season for its return, it reappears in the rollers, and, if undisturbed, makes directly for the shore.


      The time when our three men landed, in the month of January, is known as "brown cow season," or "shedding season." The females which took to sea in September, now sleek and fat, return in swarms to the land.

      They do not "pod" on the beach, as at the time of parturition; but make their way inland among the turf-knolls, and are found even up to the base of the cliffs, or central ridge.

      They remain on shore, if undisturbed, for several weeks, living, as it were, on their own fat. During this time, they shed the short hair from their hides, and become gradually lank and lean. On their return to the ocean they present a snaky, ludicrous appearance, being spoken of by the expressive term, "slim-skins." At this time they are hardly worth killing – the yield of oil being comparatively nothing.

      During "March bull season," which really begins in February, the old males, some of immense size, make their appearance. These are formidable animals to encounter, and are usually killed by a bullet in the brain.

      Unwieldy as this animal appears, he can move on a firm beach as fast as a man moderately running. He pulls himself forward on his belly with a jerking movement of his powerful flippers, leaving a broad "wake" in the sand, not unlike that of a side-wheel steamer in the sea. When attacked, he instinctively turns seaward; and, if not quickly weakened by mortal wounds, often escapes into the surf, and is seen no more.

      Sometimes, when only wounded, and too far inland to escape by sea, he turns upon his assailant with an agility and ferocity by no means contemptible. But speaking generally, the sea-elephant cannot be called a dangerous animal.

      Our adventurers commenced operations, as soon as their shelter was finished; and by wary management, killing no more each day than they could skin and secure, made the business profitable, without frightening the beasts away from their favorite haunts.

      The skinning process occupies considerable time, as it is necessary first to take off the hide, and then to flense off the blubber, cutting it into convenient pieces for transportation. A hole being slit in each piece as it is thrown off, a stout pole is slipped through a number of them, and thus the load is borne on the shoulders of two men. The carcase and hide are left as worthless.

      The labor was severe, as all the blubber had to be collected in heaps at the most eligible point for rafting it off, when the brig should return. It might remain thus for a month, or even two months, and still be in fair condition; though, of course, always depreciating, as the oil gradually escaped from it.

      It is usual to land casks, wherever it is practicable to do so, and the blubber being packed into them, may remain so a whole season before being boiled –if necessary. Thus the oil which escapes is all saved; and the casks may be rafted off through the breakers, at any time when the weather will permit.

      A beach where these animals have been numerous, and which has been "worked" two or three seasons, is, of course, thickly strewn with bones and carcases in every stage of decomposition. But little or no unpleasant effect


is observed from this fact. In a climate so cool, with strong winds prevailing, the air preserves its purity, and no sense is affected but that of sight.

      Thus isolated, shut in from communication with the outer world, like Sinbad in the valley of diamonds, Curran and his two comrades toiled on industriously for a month. By this time the heaps of skinned blubber had grown to such a size that, even if the brig had met with little success elsewhere, the voyage would be a sure thing – provided the spoil could be got off.

      But they were less sanguine in this particular than when they commenced work. Although veteran sealers, this was their first experience on the weather coast of Desolation. And they had observed that during all this time, the winds prevailing on shore, there had been only two or three days when it was possible to beach a boat, or tow casks in, and land them in good condition.

      "If we ever save our treasure," said Curran, "it will only be by rafting it in strings, and hauling it off through the breakers, with the boats anchored outside. We've enough now to fill the brig, and it's useless to kill any more. These heaps, if they could be saved now, would boil out a thousand barrels, safe enough. We might get another thousand, I suppose, if we wanted it: for it's about time now for the first March bulls to begin to haul."

      The days passed on, and the brig came not. There was nothing for the three men to do, but to make themselves as comfortable as circumstances permitted, and to wait with what patience they might.

      The great March bulls, the very kings of the phocae, hauled; and again went to sea unmolested; the myriads of penguins croaked monotonously, night and day, in their rookery at the base of the mountains; the sea-birds wheeled and screamed overhead. Thus day after day wore away, till the month had lengthened into two; and still the anxious glances directed seaward failed to discover the missing brig.

      Meanwhile, Captain Berkely, having met with fair success at another point further south, had the misfortune to lose his topmasts in a gale, and was unable in his crippled condition to return at the time appointed. It would have been highly dangerous to remain on the weather coast; and no alternative was left him but to run down under the lee of the island, and make a harbor. At the nearest available anchorage he repaired his damages, and again put to sea.

      It was already late in March, and Curran had begun seriously to estimate his probable chances of life and death, if forced to winter in this desolate spot. The brig must have met with some accident, or failed to find the place again.

      Its position, of course, was not laid down on the charts of that day, nor, from the state of the weather, had it been determined by observations. But Captain Joe Berkely was not the man to neglect noting landmarks, or to give up the search lightly, especially where the lives of his men were concerned.

      "The Coeur de Lion must be lost," said Curran to his two subordinates, as they stood together on the rocks, toward the close of a raw, windy day, when the surf was rolling in heavily at their feet. "I can't help thinking the old man would have found us, if she were still afloat."


      "What do you think of our chance, wintering here?" asked Shepard, with a look evincing the anxiety of his mind.

      "Desperate," returned the officer. "We might stand the weather, perhaps. We might even find grub enough, such as 'tis. But without vegetables of any sort, and, worse yet, without employment for our minds, almost without hope, the chances are that scurvy would finish us all before spring."

      "Do you think there is any other vessel cruising this side the island?"

      "No, I don't. Even if any other one has ventured round here, she has left before this date, and gone into winter quarters at Three Island Harbor, on the lee side. But we mustn't despair. We'll make out our log for the winter, and begin to-morrow morning to get ready for the change of season. We'll do all we can think of to preserve our lives, and leave the rest to Providence."

      The younger seaman, who had stood a silent but deeply interested listener to this colloquy, now stretched his hand suddenly to seaward, in the direction of the weather point, while his face lighted up with excitement.

      "Look!" he shouted. "There's the brig!"

      His cry of delight was echoed by the other two: for there, sure enough, was the Coeur de Lion, under easy canvas, running in for the land.

      "I knew Joe Berkely would never leave a shipmate to starve here, if he had a vessel under him!" said the leader.

      "But what can he do, if this weather stands? He can't land a boat here, nor even in the little cove, to-day."

      "No, that he can't. If he could, they might haul us up the cliff where we came down. But he is luffing now – and there's a signal going up."

      "What does that mean?" asked Shepard.

      "It means," said Curran, referring to a written paper in his pocket, "that he will take us off to-night if he can. That we are to abandon the blubber, and look only to our own escape."

      "To abandon the blubber, did you say?"

      "Of course. He doesn't dare to delay an hour; and it couldn't be got off to-night, anyhow. He thinks only of saving us, and making an offing to-night."

      "But I don't see yet how he is to get us off to-night. He can't beach a boat; and there is no anchorage for the vessel, unless he comes very near the land, which he will hardly dare do, with the wind as it is."

      "But a boat can anchor outside the roller, and veer away a line with a float. If we can once get the end of that line on the beach, why then – "

      "Then what?"

      "We must bind it to our bodies, and let them haul us out through the surf. It's our only chance."

      Shepard ruminated a moment in silence.

      "The chance is a good one," he said, "if we can keep clear of the kelp. But it's coming dark very soon, and how are they to see where to drop their grapnel? We must get a light, to make each other understand any signals."

      "Well build a bonfire," said Curran. "There's fuel enough!"


      And he pointed to the immense heaps of mellow blubber, from which the oil, forced out by the pressure of the upper strata, had already formed little rivulets and shining pools, in the inequalities of the rocks.

      "No attempt will be made to save it; and it matters little whether we destroy it by our own act, or leave it to run out into the ground."

      As the wind was not blowing directly into the bight, but rather from northwest, Berkely ventured within less than a mile of the land; and then, heaving to on the starboard tack, lowered his boat, and took charge of her himself.

      It was by this time nearly dark; and, as the boat dropped clear of the brig's counter, the signal-lantern went up at her gaff.

      "He shows his light," said Curran. "But we can answer him, and outdo him, in that line. Keep the run of his signals, while I make a blaze."

      A few splinters of wood to start with; and presently the fire caught the pools of oil, and, fanned by the fresh breeze, one of the piles was soon ablaze, and shed a strong light upon the sea, guiding the approaching boat into the best channel between the patches of kelp.

      Still another and another pile was kindled, till the cloud of black smoke enveloped all the leeward quarter of the horizon in its pall; and as the flames grew fiercer, the whole view to seaward was illuminated.

      When the boat dropped her anchor, at just a safe distance beyond the influence of the roller, the commanding figure of Captain Berkely could be plainly seen, and all the movements of his crew were revealed with a minuteness of detail equal to the effect of daylight. And far in the background, the reefed topsail of the brig, thrown aback, looked ghostlike in the gloom.

      Eager eyes watched the dancing buoy that told where the line was being veered away from the tub in the boat; and ere long it was dashed ashore at the feet of those who were to risk their lives upon its strength.

      It was a critical moment when the three stout-hearted seamen, securely bound to the line, shook each other by the hand, and committed themselves to the mercy of Heaven, and the eager arms of their sympathizing friends, who sat braced for a quick and vigorous pull.

      All was arranged by pantomimic gestures, easily seen in the glare of the fierce firelight; and Curran, watching the most favorable moment, gave the final signal. Together they plunged in; and exerting their own efforts in aid of the powerful strain on the line, they were drawn through, and lifted into the boat, more dead than alive, for the moment.

      The struggle had been a fearful one, but they were saved.

      Fiercely blazed the bonfire, long after the Coeur de Lion had filled away on her course – throwing out in bold relief the dark walls of sterile rock in the background, and diffusing a lurid light over the wildly raging sea. The scene was one of terrific grandeur and sublimity – never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it.

      And the circumstances here narrated have given a name to the locality; which will, doubtless, be known as "Bonfire Beach" for all time to come.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Bonfire Beach.
Publication: Onward.
Vol/No/Date: August 1869
Pages: 97-104