Wrecked on a Reef
III — The Sea-Lions
Having had an opportunity, during my enforced residence in the Aucklands, of examining very closely the species of Phocidæ known as Sea-lions— of living, as it were, in their intimacy — I think it will not be useless if I here put on record all experience has taught me in reference to the nature and manners of these animals.
The adult males are generally of a brown colour. From the shoulders to the posterior extremity of the body they are covered with a short, smooth, and very compact fur. They measure from six to seven feet in length, and from six to eight in girth at the shoulders, according as they are more or less fat. Their average weight is between five and six hundred pounds. The one we killed at Campbell Island, on Christmas-day, an animal of extraordinary corpulence, did not weigh less than a hundred and fifty pounds. A thick mane of coarse hair surrounds their neck, and floats down upon their shoulders. When it is dry, the bristles composing it, which are from four to five inches in length, curve towards the back. The sea-lions have the faculty of raising it at will, like "the quills of the fretful porcupine;" and they never fail to do so when making ready for combat, or if surprised in their moments of repose.
I have often seen these animals, when suddenly aroused by our approach, rear themselves haughtily on their fore-paws, and assume the attitude of a dog when seated. The lower part of their body concealed by tall grasses, their head erect, their gaze ferociously fixed on the object of their surprise, their mane bristled, their lips trembling, and revealing every now and then their formidable tusks, they had all the appearance of a lion, whose name they were not unworthy to bear. Had they as much agility as they have audacity and strength, they would not be less formidable.
As for scent, it is the subtlest of their senses. It is this which enables them to keep on the watch, and which, even during sleep, warns them of the approach of danger. The snout is broad, flat, well developed.
The upper lip, thick and fleshy, is fringed on either side with thirty hairs, hard as horn, each about four inches in length, and terminating in a point. Some of these hairs are marked with transparent veins, like those of the tortoise shell.
The enormous jaw is armed with strong tusks, as in the great Carnivora.
It is towards the early days of November that the males, then very fat, arrive in the bays. They remain there until the end of February. At this moment they gain the outer shores, and give place to the females and the young, who remain much longer.
On their arrival, each of them selects an easy landing-place, of which he takes possession, and which he regards as his own property: he never strays very far from it, even to go in search of his food. It is not long before they grow thinner, and by the end of their stay they have considerably diminished in size. They permit only the females to enter upon their territory, which they defend to the uttermost against the invasions of the other males. Hence arise their combats, in which they display an excessive ferocity and bitterness; and as there are more males than accessible landing-places, these combats are very frequent. Generally they take place upon the shore; sometimes, however, the fight is fought out in the water, which is then reddened with blood.
In summer, when the sea-lions are not occupied in fishing or in fighting, they lie extended in the sun, on gravelly beaches, on promontories fringed with rocks, or, if the weather is bad, among the tall thick grasses of the shore.
If, while they are swimming, they catch sight of a man on the shore, they will emerge from the water and hasten to attack him. If the man takes to flight, they pursue him. On these occasions their movements are singular. They bring back the extremity of their body against their anterior fins, and page 213so project themselves forward, leaping or springing with a swiftness of which you would not deem them capable. But if the hunted man suddenly turns round and faces them, they halt immediately, and for some moments eye their adversary with an astonished air prior to charging him. This is the favourable moment. Fix your gaze upon that of the animal, and, without hesitating, advance straight upon him, until you are near enough to deal a blow on his head with your cudgel exactly between the two eyes. If you hit him in this spot you will quickly master him. If you fail, you do but excite his fury; and your best plan is to avoid him by an abrupt deviation, and leave the field open for him to regain the sea. It frequently happened that we lost one of our cudgels, seized between the monster's strong tusks, and immediately crushed.
The animal which has been hit but not killed grows mistrustful, and no longer issues readily from the water to attack you. He has learned to fear, and his fear communicates itself to all the seals in his neighbourhood.
There is, however, a sufficiently efficacious means of enticing them upon shore; namely, you conceal yourself among the tall grasses, or behind a rock, and imitate the bleating of the female. The lion will respond to the call, and advance close up to your hiding-place.
The females are much smaller than the males, and have no mane. Their colour varies according to their age. From one to two years old they are of a bright, silvery-tinted gray. In the third year the gray loses its lustre, and over the back of the animal is besprinkled with light tawny spots, which speedily blend into one another, and form a monotonous tint of golden yellow. Gradually this tint loses its brilliancy, grows redder and yet redder, and when the lioness is old changes into a kind of brown.
They arrive in the Aucklands at the beginning of November, at the same time as the males, but do not quit the bays until the month of June. They are careful to choose the low wooded shores, which offer both an easy access and a safe asylum. At this epoch they are found apart, traversing the forest in all directions in search of a convenient resting-place. It sometimes happens that, not finding what they desire upon the shore, they retire to the mountain-side, among the great tufts of grasses. In the course of December they give birth to a single cub: they never bear more, at least to my knowledge, than one at a time.
At the end of a few days they entice their cub out of the nest by repeated bleatings: in this way they draw it down to the shore, generally on a low narrow tongue of land. There they suckle it, caress it, and persuade it to enter the sea; a difficult task, for it is a curious fact that these animals show in their infancy a strong antipathy to the water. Nothing is more amusing page 214to witness than the devices employed by the females in beguiling their young to plunge into the dreaded element.
At first the mother sets the example by swimming to and fro, very gently, and close in-shore; her modulated and incessant bleatings, which are characterised by a profound tenderness, invite the young seal to imitate her. A vain effort! The new-born obstinately remains on the shore, where he sports about, but never approaches the water. He is content with answering his mother's call in tiny accents. However, after a prolonged hesitation and uncertainty, he grows a little bolder — he moves down to the margin of the waves; but scarcely has he dipped a fm in them than he pulls it back hastily, and recoils with marks of the greatest repugnance. The lioness then returns to the land, caresses her little one, encourages him anew, and does the best she can to persuade him to repeat the attempt.
An hour or two will pass, perhaps, before the young seal decides on making a second venture, which, by the way, has no better result than the first. It is not until after one, two, or even three days that he succeeds in overcoming his fears, and intrusting himself bodily to the water.
And then a new difficulty occurs: he cannot swim, he knows not how; he is in the position of a young lad who, when taking his first swimming lessons, finds himself suddenly plunged into deep water, where he can get no footing. He is afraid; he struggles piteously; and with a gulping, squeaking voice, nearly choked by the water which he swallows, he calls for assistance. His mother is close at hand: she has not lost sight of him for a moment; she hastens to the spot, glides underneath him, takes him on her back, and then, swimming very cautiously, and always on the surface, she steers towards the isthmus, or islet, whither she is anxious to take him to complete his apprenticeship.
The young seals, born in the same year, collected in numerous companies on these islets or isthmuses, remain there for several months. As they grow older so do they grow bolder, and venture further from the shore; they begin to catch fish; in a word, they become familiarised with the kind of life for which nature has intended them. Early in June they cease to suckle, and they emigrate with their mothers, to rejoin the males on the outer coasts of the island. In the month of November they return in a body — males, females, and young — to install themselves, as in the preceding year, in the capacious and sheltered bays.