10 Sealers and whalers
It has been said that few did more to endanger Antarctic wildlife than James Cook, who, after his second southern voyage, told of islands teeming with seals and the Southern Ocean filled with whales. But Cook was not the first to note this profusion; earlier explorers, including Francis Drake, had also reported it. Since at least the twelfth century Arctic peoples had used seal and whale oil for lighting and seal furs for clothing, and southern seals had long provided oil and clothing for the Patagonians. Wholesale slaughter of seals and whales by European profit takers, however, was a direct result of the demands of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution with its improved technologies.
European sealing probably began with Spaniard Juan de Solfo, who sailed to South America in 1515; he was killed and eaten by the natives, but his crew took seal skins back to Seville. In the eighteenth century Chinese furriers discovered how to remove the coarse outer hair of seal pelts, leaving the soft inner fur intact. Sealing became a maritime gold rush, beginning on the Falkland Islands in 1764, and rapidly spreading to South Georgia and the coast of South America.
In the late seventeenth century the piratical English navigator William Dampier called at the Juan Fernandez Islands, off the coast of Chile, and wrote: “seals swarm around … there is not a bay nor rock … but it is full of them.” In 1797 throngs of sealers arrived, and by 1807 few seals remained. One vessel took off 100,000 skins, and the total harvest was estimated at three million. Forty thousand skins were shipped to London from the Falkland Islands in 1788, the year when the first British sealers reached South Georgia. In 1800, a New York sealer took 57,000 skins from the island, and in 1825 James Weddell calculated that 1.2 million fur seals had been killed on South Georgia. More than 120,000 skins had also been plundered from Australia’s Macquarie Island.
author: David McGonigal