Centuries ago Aristotle described the anatomy and physiology of the seal. (Some species inhabit the neighboring Caspian Sea). The Greeks named a city, Phoceae, in honor of the seal. Possibly, the badger skins used in the tabernacle were actually seal skins found in the Red Sea.
The seventeenth century mariners described the small whale-like creatures which they found in great herds on the islands bordering the southern tip of South Africa and South America. However, these unattractive oily animals were ignored until the latter part of the eighteenth century when Captain Cook (1775) discovered the silky texture of the fur. His cargo of seal fleece was exchanged in Canton, China for spices and tea, the treasures of the Orient.
James Fennimore Cooper described the vicissitudes of sealing in his novel, “The Sea Lions.”
Seals differ from most sea creatures in that they are true mammals. They breathe by means of lungs rather than with gills; they are warm blooded which means that they maintain a constant body temperature as the higher animals do regardless of the temperature of their surroundings; and lastly, they (nurse their young. Seals have an unusual capacity for air, for sometimes they remain submerged from 10 to 30 minutes. Water absorbs more heat than air, increasing the problem of maintaining a constant body temperature especially in the colder waters inhabited by the seal. However, the omniscient Creator has provided this creature with a thick layer of spongy tissue which is filled with oily fat, an excellent insulation.
There are two distinct classes of seals. The true or hair seal is a quiet animal without external ears (only holes) and has only short flippers while the other class which includes the fur seal and the sea lion has distinct outer ears, long flippers and is extremely noisy.
The most intelligent species is the sea lion, a graceful swimmer and a natural juggler, which is often found to h the center of attraction in zoos. From the commercial standpoint it is valuable for its oil; its skin is used for boots, tents and clothing; it’s meat is edible In contrast to most seal flesh and the outer covering of its intestine is used to make waterproof raincoats.
Largest among the seals is the elephant seal which reaches the length of sixteen feet and weighs up to 5,000 pounds. Not only its lumbering size reminds one of an elephant but it has a peculiar enlarged probascis which resembles an abbreviated trunk. This species inhabits the deeper waters of the South Atlantic and South Pacific.
The most valuable species from the commercial standpoint is the fur seal. The male or bull generally weighs approximately 500 pounds, while the adult female or cow weighs only 90 to 100 pounds. Only one pup is produced annually and it is born during the summer in the polar regions. The average life span is 15 years. The chief source of food is squid and herring. The flesh of the fur seal is rank and inedible and is consequently used for fertilizer while the oil is used in the tanning industry.
Long hair-like bristles are interspersed in the short plush-like fur. The inside of the skin is scraped which loosens the long hair so that they can be easily removed leaving a uniform soft plush fur.
As the birds make their seasonal migrations so also the fur seals migrate going south in October to the California coast and returning in spring to the Bering Sea. Their breeding grounds are called rookeries. Each bull cares for a harem which may contain from 10 to 100 cows. He provides protection for both the cows and the new born pups which are generally born 2 or 3 days after the mother’s arrival at the rookery. The immature males, which includes all males under 7 years of age, are not permitted near the harem and are forced to live in their own bachelor quarters known as pods. Under present conservation laws the animals living in the pods are killed and harvested for fur.
Just a few examples will suffice to illustrate how avaricious the early seal hunters were. They ignored all laws of conservation and thought only in terms of immediate gains. In 1820 one vessel harvested 57,000 furs in the South Shetland Islands in a single season which brought in a revenue ranging from $1 to $5 per skin. One account relates how 71 men killed 75,000 seals in 50 working days while another story tells of actually killing and skinning 90,000 animals in a period of 39 days. The rich Prililof hunting grounds which is located off the coast of Alaska was reduced from 5,000,000 to 125,000 animals before the neighboring countries (Russia, Japan, United States and Canada) decided in 1911 to make a treaty which prohibited methods of ruthless slaughter. In this treaty pelagic sealing was forbidden—a disastrous practice of pursuing and shooting the seals in water during migrations which resulted in tremendous waste for only one out of 8 seals shot was actually harvested, the rest sank. Since the treaty has been in effect the number of seals has increased from 125,000 to 3,000,000. In addition, a yearly harvest of approximately 100,000 animals is now provided.
“And God created great whales and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind. . . .” Genesis 1:21.