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Sport 41: 2013

Philip Armstrong — The Rookery

page 248

Philip Armstrong

The Rookery

‘Same again,’ says Bewlay. ‘Nothing.’ He spits over the rail. ‘Nothing but mud and dead wood.’

Hayes can only agree. From the foredeck of the ship, the headlands and beach look just like every other bay they’ve visited, and just as deserted. He waits for someone else to break the silence. Eventually Vance, the first mate, speaks up. ‘Shall we check ashore, all the same?’

The ship’s master grunts and Vance nods to the men and they go off to prepare the longboat. Hayes heads down to his cabin to collect his nets and preserving-bottles. Even from below deck he can hear Bewlay’s raised voice. As he comes back through the aft hatch Vance passes him, rolling his eyes.

It’s the fifth bay they’ve visited today in this part of Dusky Sound. Everyone knows what they’ll find when they get to the beach. The mouth of a river, half full of motionless tea-coloured water. Piles of driftwood, rotting seaweed, a dead stingray perhaps. Sandflies, for sure.

The boat casts off. A light drizzle falls steadily, beading where it lands. The sounds of the ship, Bewlay’s hectoring and the clank of buckets and chains, fade quickly. Nobody speaks. For a few minutes there’s nothing to be heard but the creak of rowlocks and the dip of oars. Then new sounds come to meet them, the grinding of cicadas and the fall of waves and the chiming of birds, growing in intensity. Hayes recalls hearing Banks’ address to the Royal Society about the Endeavour’s visit here twenty years ago: The most melodious wild musick I have ever heard.

The prow crunches into sand. In silence they step into the shallows and haul the boat up the beach. They’re each weighed down by their particular frustrations. Hayes needs to discover new species for his Royal Society sponsors, to justify his passage on this voyage. So far he’s found nothing worth a jar of formalin. The sealers want to find page 249 a decent-sized rookery, somewhere they can settle for the next few months and get to work, but they haven’t seen a single fur seal since entering the Sound. Bewlay and the crew of the Commerce want to find the ten sealers who’ve been here over winter, to collect them with their stock of oil and furs and return to Port Jackson. But there’s been no sign of them either.

They were dropped at Woodhen Cove in April, led by Samuel Cooper, an experienced seal-gang chief, with instructions to work their way around Resolution Island and meet the ship six months later in Duck Cove. They shouldn’t be hard to find. After a winter in New Zealand even the toughest sealer is keen to be picked up. Keen to rediscover what it’s like to feel warm, to eat something other than fish and seal meat. Keen to get back home and claim his lay. But as the men on the Commerce tell each other, a lot can happen in six months living on wet rocks in the shelter of a longboat at the arse-end of the world. Of course they say it out of Bewlay’s hearing. For the master of a Samuel Enderby and Sons vessel, to lose a gang of sealers is unfortunate, to lose a season’s harvest a calamity. To lose an entire population of fur seals is the end of the world.

The last rookery they saw was on a tiny islet, little more than a column of rock, standing alone in the deep water outside the entrance to the Sound. Its shape reminded Hayes incongruously of a medieval city. Layers of slumped sandstone walls at the base, surmounted by cliffs divided into facets like mullioned windows. At the top a line of gannets kept watch on a broken spire.

As the ship came closer Hayes caught the fish-market stink and clamour of the seals. Every near-horizontal space was occupied by the fat sleeping bodies of adult bulls. Where the breakers washed over the ramparts, little pools were full of tumbling pups. Meanwhile the young adults swam around the outer walls, lounging and rolling in thickets of bull-kelp that lifted and dropped with the swell.

For Hayes and the novice sealers this was their first sight of the animals that had brought them all this way. They stood at the rail, entertained by the seals’ fluency in the water and their ungainliness out of it.

‘Look at that doughboy there,’ said one of the men. ‘He looks like page 250 Gilray chasing a barmaid.’ Everyone chuckled, even crewman Gilray himself.

Yates pointed to one of the pups who was nipping repeatedly at the hindquarters of portly old bulls and then wailing in despair when they turned and roared at him.

The youngest man on board, Yates claims to be eighteen. Hayes reckons him a few years younger. He’s noticed the other men are a bit more forbearing with Yates than with each other. They’re a rough lot, quick to curse or threaten, but with him they’re slightly, and imperceptibly to the boy himself, more tolerant. Except Torrens, of course. He’s on his third seal hunt, and though he’s probably only a half-dozen years older than Yates he wears the sneer of an older man.

‘I’ll tell you this, boy,’ said Torrens now, interrupting the laughter, ‘if you get a thrill watching these little bastards I know a game you’ll enjoy.’

He looked around with a grin at the other men before going on. ‘It’s just a bit of sport we have with the pups now and then.’

‘Come on John,’ said Ross, the chief of the sealing gang. ‘Nobody needs to hear this.’

‘Sure they do. Specially my boy Tom here.’

Ross shook his head and walked away.

‘A nursery like this one’s no use,’ said Torrens, turning back to Yates, still smiling. ‘But if you find a pup and mother by themselves, out of the water, you’re in business. Easy enough to get the little one with a net or gaff or whatever you’ve got. Skin him quick as you can, you’ll soon learn how, one slice from head to flippers at the back, another at the front, and then peel off each side like an onion. Then toss him back in the briny and watch him swim all around, trying to get away even though he don’t know what from. Turning the water a pretty pink as he goes.’

Torrens leant forward, pushed his smile right into the boy’s face.

Hayes walked away towards the stern. There he found Ross emptying his pipe over the rail.

‘That man’s a brute,’ he said.

Ross looked up.

‘I don’t believe even he would do such a thing. Surely?’

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Ross blew into the pipe and began to refill it. ‘Men will be men, Mr Hayes,’ he said

‘But they’re not being men. They’re being beasts’.

Ross shrugged. ‘You’re a man of science, Mr Hayes. Have you never cut open a living animal?’

Hayes felt his face redden. ‘It’s hardly the same thing.’

They stood in silence a while, squinting into the afternoon glare. The little rookery was now just a black silhouette.

‘Last time I was in New Zealand was for seven months,’ said Ross after a while. ‘Six of us in the gang. We slept in the shelter of the boat and ate nothing but fish and seal meat. By the time they picked us up we had four thousand skins. Some days you’d kill forty, fifty a day, chasing over the rocks with your club and gaff. Then you’d spend weeks skinning, knee-deep in blood and blubber and shit and blowflies.’

He inhaled and exhaled a lungful of smoke.

Hayes waited for Ross to continue, but he remained silent. So Hayes said, ‘But you’re back again. For another hunt.’

‘I’m an ex-convict from Botany Bay, Mr Hayes. If you can arrange a different calling I’ll be glad to follow it.’

He nodded politely and left Hayes to himself. Hayes stood a while looking back over the stern. At first he didn’t notice the seal swimming in the ship’s wake. Then the animal raised its head clear of the froth and looked at him. Hayes thought of his sister, the last time he’d seen her, at a farewell luncheon before he left London. He’d been teasing her about having three spoons of sugar in her tea, telling her she’d be fat as butter by the time he saw her next. When he looked again the plump seal had disappeared.

They only spend a couple of hours ashore. The drizzle keeps falling. The men tramp over the shells towards the north end of the bay, hallooing occasionally, calling out in turn the names of the missing men. Hayes makes for the trees above the high-tide mark. There, as expected, he finds a brown river, driftwood like piles of bones and a great many sandflies. He slaps his neck and forehead and wrists. The trees are southern beech and pine. If there are any new birds calling, he can’t hear them for the wild music of Anthornis melanura. He jots page 252 a note or two, collects a few seed-pods, pokes around in the ferns, turns over some rocks, scratches at the leafmould.

Soon he hears the men calling. They’re already back at the boat. The search for Cooper’s gang becomes more desultory each time. He turns toward the beach. The drizzle has lifted to a ceiling of high oyster-shell cloud.

The men seem brighter too, buoyed by the prospect of getting away from this sullen beach. As they launch the boat they’re discussing their favourite topic, the sandflies. Hayes knows they’re actually a kind of blackfly, Austrasimulium, but he also knows better than to say so. Gilray, the fattest man on the ship and its most dedicated complainer, is comparing the sandflies unfavourably with the bloodsucking bats of Valparaiso. Desmodus rotundus, thinks Hayes.

‘I’ve seen a horse brought to its knees by vampires overnight,’ says Gilroy. ‘But these bloody flies go for you in broad daylight, while you’re walking round.’

‘You poor bastard,’ says Vance. ‘You’ll be skin and bones by the end of the day.’

Someone suggests the sandflies must have eaten Cooper’s gang.

‘No,’ says someone else, ‘that’ll have been Davy’s cousins. Then the sandflies ate them.’

Everyone laughs, including Davy, the ship’s only native New Zealander. He doesn’t use a surname, and his name’s not really Davy. They like to cast him in cannibal horror stories and he plays along.

‘You better watch yourselves,’ says Davy. ‘I might call the sandfly goddess over to the ship. Have you lot for breakfast.’

Hayes joins the laughter. Suddenly Vance calls for silence. ‘What’s that?’

A faint cry. To Hayes it sounds like a gull, but when it’s repeated he recognises a human voice. It’s coming from a little island about half a mile to port.

His name is Joseph Veal and he’s the only one of Cooper’s men left alive. He refuses to say any more till they’re safely back on the ship. That’s how he puts it, safely back, and the men swap glances.

Once aboard the Commerce the stranger is taken straight to the master’s cabin. Bewlay tells the two mates, Vance and Davy, along page 253 with Ross and Hayes, to stay while he interviews the man. The others he sends grumbling back to their chores.

Veal must have been a heavy-set man once, Hayes can see that, but now his skin is too big for him. It’s pouched and bagged, specially round the eyes and mouth. His gums are inflamed and there are broken scabs on his lips. Scurvy, of course, but something else too. Fright, Hayes realises, intense and extended over days and weeks. The man’s nails are bitten to the quicks, which have bled recently.

As soon as the cabin door closes, Veal starts talking.

The seals disappeared overnight, he tells them, a fortnight after the gang was set ashore on Resolution Island. Over the next week the men made their way down the coast, then into the Sound. But still no quarry.

It was about late May, and winter coming in, when the deaths began. Sam Cooper was the first. All they found was a smear of blood soaked into the sand one morning, accompanied by a stench. A nauseating smell like—well, Veal can’t think what it was like. That day was a nightmare, he says, every man accusing every other. He thought they would slit each other’s throats. He had to fire his musket over their heads to force them to be silent.

‘I said now that Cooper was gone I was in charge, and if they didn’t like it I’d shoot them for mutineers. I said we had no way of knowing what happened to Cooper, whether he’d been taken by man or beast, whether it’d been one of our own or some brute from the bush. But regardless, I said, the only thing now is to keep close together. So I said, everyone stays within sight, day and night. And I set up an armed watch, two men at a time, in shifts.’

Veal rubs his eyes. ‘We got on all right for a while’, he says. ‘A week or so. In daytime we’d go from bay to bay, fishing and looking for seals, not that we ever found any. At night we’d find a cave or sleep under the boat. Every man suspected someone else, most suspected more than one. Some trusted nobody. I had two men I knew I could trust with my life, Jim Garrick and young Ben, and I made sure one of us three had a loaded musket every second.

‘I started to think we might get through the winter. But then there was another killing. The same thing, a man gone and nothing left but a pool of gore on the shells and a rank smell. I cursed the men who page 254 watched that night but they swore they never shut their eyes. I didn’t believe them till the next man was taken.’

After that everything went to pieces, Veal tells them. The seven survivors split into factions, Veal with Ben, another pair and a group of three. But in spite of everything they tried, keeping watch, sleeping close by, sleeping far apart, keeping knives in their hands through the night, hiding from each other, scattering to separate islands, four more men died. One by one they were taken in the course of a week and nothing left of them but a few gobbets of gristle. All this Veal and Ben heard from Jim Garrick, once all the others were dead, when he came back to them and pleaded to stay with them.

‘We couldn’t risk it,’ says Veal. ‘We drove him to the other end of the beach, although he wept and screamed at us. And we took turns to keep watch that night so he couldn’t come near. In the morning he was gone and nought but a rock soaked in blood to show where he’d been.’

Veal wipes his mouth with a trembling hand.

‘Devil take me,’ he says, hardly loud enough to be heard. ‘I lost all faith then. Young Ben begged me not to drive him away, he wailed and begged to stay with me that night, but I didn’t trust him no more. Not even him. I was in such terror. I forced him away, threatened to shoot him dead if he wouldn’t go.’

Veal lowers his head and stares at the floor. ‘He was taken that night, same as the others. I found his blood on the cliff face, smeared on the sandstone.’

‘Try not to distress yourself,’ says Hayes gently. ‘How could you trust any man, under the circumstances?’

Veal doesn’t look up. Doesn’t reply.

After a silence Bewlay gets to his feet and opens the cabin door. He shouts for a crewmember to take Veal to a hammock and watch over him while he rests.

Closing the door the master turns back to the others.

‘Native war party?’ says Vance.

Bewlay presses his lips together and puffs through his nose. ‘Davy?’

‘Not a chance,’ says Davy. ‘Nobody living here now. And the ones who used to live here, they wouldn’t do such a thing. Not this way.’

‘What about a raiding party? From up north maybe?’

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Davy gives a single slow head-shake, one way then the other. ‘If they want to kill you they don’t sneak round at night, drag you off one at a time, sly and secret. They come in broad day, holler and dance so you know they’re there. They want you to know you’re about to die. Then they kill you all-together. They don’t leave anyone to tell tales.’

Bewlay rasps a thumb through his whiskers. ‘Mr Hayes. What’s your view?’

Hayes is surprised to be asked. ‘Well,’ he says, slightly caught out, ‘Veal’s survival suggests an obvious explanation. The other men are gone and he isn’t. Surely he must be the killer?’

Ross shakes his head. ‘Impossible,’ he says. ‘Everyone in the fishery knows Joe Veal. Steady a man as you’ll find. The kind that everyone wants on their gang. And him and young Ben Veal, the closest brothers I ever knew. More like twins than anything.’

A long silence follows, while they wait for Bewlay to decide what to do.

News of the master’s verdict spreads in no time. The Commerce will set sail at first light for Port Jackson, to deliver Veal and his story to the authorities. Tonight Veal will sleep in the after-hold with an armed watch outside the locked door.

Wandering through the ship Hayes comes upon clusters of men, talking in low voices. They don’t stop when he joins them. One group is swapping stories about crocodiles and wild dogs and monitor lizards of New South Wales. Passing another group he overhears Torrens asking Davy about the native demons of the New Zealanders. The albino ghouls that tear to pieces anyone who ventures into the forest. An eagle big enough to lift a man in its talons and shake him out of his skin, so his insides smash to pulp on the rocks below. Davy snorts. ‘Stories to scare children.’

As usual Hayes feels like a foreigner. To him sailors are a race apart. Throughout the voyage he’s observed their prehensile feet on the rigging, their skins stained by tattoos. He’s worked hard to figure out their exotic jargon, the way their accent differs from anything on land. And he’s overhead their legends, which are unshakeable once they take hold.

Tonight, though, it is Hayes himself who plunges into a succession page 256 of supernatural horrors. He dreams he’s in a forest and chunks of flesh are dropping from the sky. He sees himself swimming from below as limbless black bodies cut through the deep towards him. Tattooed trees come to life and grab him in a crushing grip, shards of bone break through his flesh and tendrils curl into his wounds.

He’s startled awake by noises overhead, running feet and raised voices. He struggles to untangle his dreams from the racket. By the time he makes it to the gangway Ross is there, halfway down. His eyes are wide. He tells Hayes to come to Bewlay’s cabin straight away.

‘What time is it?’

‘Eight bells.’

Midnight. He’s only been asleep a couple of hours. Ross is gone before Hayes can ask what’s happening.

In Bewlay’s cabin the same group is assembled: the master, the two mates and Ross. Bewlay gives Hayes the blunt facts: a man has disappeared from the ship, leaving only a blood-soaked hammock. It is young Tom Yates. None of the others in his cabin noticed anything till they were woken by the dripping blood.

Most of the men have decided Joseph Veal must be the culprit. Led by Torrens, they want to drag him on deck and hang him right now. Yet the two men who kept watch swear the door to the after-hold has been locked the whole time, and neither of them closed his eyes for a moment.

‘Such a mood on a ship is a dangerous thing,’ says Bewlay.

Vance’s voice shakes with emotion. ‘Let the men do as they want. It’s the only justice poor Tom can have.’

‘Mr Bewlay, please,’ says Ross. He has dark patches under his eyes, which he’s rubbing with the index finger and thumb of one hand. ‘There’s no way in the world Veal can have killed Tom. Get out of a locked hold, past two wakeful men? Kill a man and take his body without disturbing the other four sleepers in the cabin?’

‘So, what then?’ demands Vance. ‘Did we bring with us a murderer from Port Jackson? What about the deaths of Cooper’s men?’

Ross shakes his head but says nothing more.

‘Unless,’ says Hayes, and the others turn to look at him, ‘unless someone else came aboard this afternoon. Following Veal. The same person who followed Cooper’s men from Resolution Island.’

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‘But even then,’ says Bewlay, ‘how could he take Tom without waking the others? And where could he hide, now, on a ship lit up like a ballroom, and every man wide-awake and wide-eyed with fear?’

No one offers an answer. Bewlay turns to the second mate. ‘Davy, what do you say?’

Throughout the discussion Davy’s been sitting with his shoulders slumped, staring at the floor. Somehow Hayes finds this more disturbing than anything. The second mate is usually brimful of energy, jiggling his legs and fidgeting when forced to sit still. Now all he does is shrug.

‘Lock him up, let him go, maroon him, hang him, throw him overboard’, he says. ‘What’s the difference? Whatever’s aboard can go ashore, whatever’s on shore can come aboard.’

Bewlay looks as if he’s about to respond angrily, but he’s interrupted by loud footfalls and raised voices outside the cabin.

The master stands up. ‘Very well,’ he says. ‘I have to answer to the Company and the law. My duty is to deliver this man to the authorities, along with all the facts as we know them, and leave it to their judgement.’

‘Mr Bewlay,’ says Vance. ‘We can’t keep order with this man aboard.’

‘Obviously,’ Bewlay snaps. ‘Tonight he will be taken ashore. In the morning he can be brought back on board, kept manacled and under armed guard, for the voyage back to Port Jackson.’ He takes a deep breath. ‘I need two men to take him ashore and watch him till morning.’

‘I’ll go, Mr Bewlay,’ says Ross. ‘I don’t believe I have anything to fear from Joseph Veal.’

To his own surprise, Hayes volunteers as well.

The sea is like glass as they prepare the longboat. The oil lamps reflect in the water and everyone’s face is lit from above and below at once. Veal is brought on deck, his wrists tied. The men fall back as he passes. Ross helps him into the boat and Hayes follows.

All three are silent as the boat glides toward the shore, moving in a pool of shadowless yellow light, surrounded by darkness.

Ross and Hayes help Veal up the beach. Ross loops the chain page 258 round a boulder and fastens Veal’s bonds to it. His ankles and left wrist remain manacled, but Ross explains he can stand up if he needs to piss, and they’re leaving water and biscuit within reach of his free right arm. Veal sits with his back against the rock and his eyes closed, as if sleeping, but Hayes can see he’s trembling. As Hayes turns to go Veal’s arm shoots out and grabs him by the wrist.

‘Have you ever smelt the insides of a whale, Mr Hayes, during the cutting-in?’

Hayes shakes his head.

‘That’s how it smelt. Each time we found a man gone, that stench, all over. Like a breath from the gut of the sea.’

Hayes pulls free of his grip and steps back, and turns to follow Ross along the beach.

They settle by a pile of rocks at the north end of the bay, a few hundred yards from Veal’s boulder. There’s no rain but it’s cold and they wrap their coats close around them. Each man has a loaded weapon, Ross a musket and Hayes the fowling-piece he uses to collect specimens. They’re facing along the beach to where Veal is sitting, and although they can’t see him, the night is so quiet they’ll hear any movement.

Sitting in the darkness, silent and motionless, Hayes loses all sense of passing time. He doesn’t know if it’s minutes or hours later that he hears Ross’ breathing deepen in sleep.

Then he becomes aware of another noise. A kind of percussive sound, or a sensation beneath the level of sound, like blood drumming in his ateries. He lifts his head to listen but it’s gone. Then it starts afresh, stronger now, like artillery heard far off. Quietly he stands up. It stops again.

Next moment he hears something else, something that makes his stomach flip. Feet approaching. Two feet walking slow and heavy over the pebbles from his left, from where the tree-line begins. He holds his breath. The footfalls keep coming. He’s trying to decide whether to raise his gun, or call out, or shake Ross awake, when a scream rips through the darkness directly in front of him. Somehow shrill and deep at once, a tone no human voice could make.

Ross is on his feet, scrambling for his gun.

‘The lamp,’ shouts Hayes. His heart pounds as Ross fumbles to page 259 light the lamp. Every moment he expects an assault but doesn’t know how it will come. At last the yellow glow as Ross holds up the lamp.

In the flickering light Hayes glimpses something that can’t really be there. An impossible body, far too large for a man, shapeless like a haystack, armless and headless. Two heavy legs that end in long toes and talons. A long muscular tail raised right in front of him. No, it can’t be a tail, there’s a little head at the end of it, with dark eyes reflecting the light.

Ross drops the lamp and it smashes. The apparition vanishes. In the sudden darkness the heavy footfalls can be heard again, this time faster and heading away.

‘God almighty,’ says Ross hoarsely, ‘what was that?’

As the shock drains down his spine like water, Hayes sinks to the sand. ‘It’s a bird,’ he says.

‘A bird? It’s a bloody big one then!’

‘Yes,’ says Hayes, ‘it’s a bloody big bird. Like an emu or ostrich, something in that family. But bigger, to be sure.’

Now they both laugh, long and quietly, with relief. They wrap their coats around them again. They should go and check on Veal but with the lamp smashed there’s no point, so they wait for dawn instead.

When the grey light is strong enough for them to make out the shape of the boulder along the beach, Hayes and Ross get to their feet, brushing sand from their clothes. They collect their gear and set off to where they left Veal.

As they walk Hayes becomes aware of a smell. He realises it’s been in his nostrils a while, but now it’s strong enough to force its way into his consciousness. It takes him another moment to identify it as the halitus of decaying meat.

Ross has caught it too. He puffs out through his nostrils in disgust. ‘Smells like rotten seal guts,’ he says.

The next moment Ross stops short and stares ahead. He puts his arm out to bring Hayes to a halt. Hayes sees what he’s looking at and feels a thump in his chest like a punch to the heart.

They’re close enough to distinguish the form of Joseph Veal against the rock. He’s sitting just as they left him last night. But now, a few yards away page 260 and facing him, somebody else is sitting too, leaning back against a large stump of driftwood. Neither man is moving.

Keeping his eyes fixed on the two figures, Hayes raises his gun. From the corner of his eye he sees Ross do the same. Slowly they walk forward.

‘You there!’ calls Ross shakily. ‘Who is it? Stay there and don’t move.’

There is no reply. As Hayes and Ross approach there’s no movement from either figure. When they’re close enough they can see why.

There are not two men there after all. What Hayes and Ross have taken to be a second man is actually Veal’s skin, which has been cut scalp to heels down the back and stripped from his body in a single piece, and now sits up as though starched, in the shape of a man. A few feet away, slumped against the rock, sits the rest of him, bones and ligaments hung with innards and muscle and fat.

Ross gags and stumbles away. Hayes comes closer and bends down to the figure by the rock. The eyes are still moving, staring back from bloody rims. In dismay Hayes watches as a hand, a lump of gristle, reaches down to brush away some sand sticking to the viscera that spill onto the ground between the flayed legs.

Unable to hold that gaze, Hayes looks back towards the pallid man-shape of empty skin that sits nearby. By the time he can bring himself to turn again to the other raddled face, the life has gone from its eyeballs, although they remain fixed on him, having no lids to close.

The Commerce is making the most of a strong cold easterly. Half an hour ago the ship passed the heads of the Sound and plunged into the Tasman.

Hayes wonders if there has ever been such a silent vessel. It’s as if the men are afraid even to talk.

Leaning over the starboard bow he sees a dark shape against the bright horizon. It’s the little island they passed on their way into the Sound a few days ago. As the ship draws closer Hayes catches the smell of the rookery but he can’t hear any barking or see any movement. It seems even this distant outpost has been abandoned.

But when the ship comes alongside, and the rock is no longer page 261 a silhouette, Hayes finds he’s mistaken. Both the islet and the surf around it are crowded with fur seals. From every plateau and ridge and rock pool and from the kelp-filled water too, shoulders and heads are raised. Every one is silent and unmoving except for the occasional twitch of a flipper, and every one has its gaze fixed on the Commerce.

All Hayes can do is look back. He stays there, staring at the animals, who keep their dark eyes bent on him, until the ship sails on and the rookery disappears from view.