Oct 29, 2011

The Year of the Seal

by Victor Scheffer

A companion book to The Year of the Whale, Year of the Seal describes the life of an Alaskan fur-seal and its companions. I found it more interesting than the whale book, probably because seals are a bit easier to relate to, but also more disturbing in some ways. Most of the book tells about one female seal, and what she does from day to day in the different seasons; she comes to land to breed and raise a pup, leaves it periodically to go fishing in the ocean, then roams widely through the seas but returns again to land the following year. The story also follows the doings of one of her pups, and a little bit of the adult male or bull seal as well, to show how their habits differ. Interwoven with the seals' lives are the activities of men, and this is where it gets troublesome. There are hunters who "harvest" the seals' skins for their thick warm fur, and biologists who count their numbers and study their behavior. Their main motive for doing so is to determine how many seals can be taken each year without decimating the population. But they also do some studies just (it seems) for knowledge' sake. Things like chopping the ears off a hundred seals to mark them and see if they come back the next year to the same spot. Killing a bunch of seals by different methods just to see which is more efficient. The worst, I felt, was when they had caught a few pups for a study and in order to keep them alive, every day would go out to the seal rookery, find a pup that had just been fed by its mother, kill it and feed the milk from its stomach to the captive pup. It seemed such a waste.

Of course, the seals suffered and died of natural causes, too. Orcas and parasitic worms, stormy weather and fights among themselves. The huge bulls often trampled pups that got in their way, or attacked them to vent frustration. Some pups' mothers never returned from the sea and these slowly wasted away. It's all quite brutal. And yet the seals are full of life, apparently vigorous and healthy, and there are many passages beautifully describing their grace in the water, their speed and agility chasing fish, the quiet and tender moments between mother and pup, etc. All the misery seemed to jump out at me, though. Maybe that's why this book has gone unread for so many years (the last time its due date was stamped is 1995).

Still, I liked this one better than the whale book. Bought at a library sale.

rating: 3/5 ........ 205 pages, 1970


Jenny said...

That's terrible about the pups being killed for the milk in their stomachs! That's awful.

I read something a while ago about how seal-hunting is a thing you can do as a tourist in, I dunno, Greenland or somewhere. Because they have too many seals anyway, so tourists go on this tour of the area and it culminates in CLUBBING SEALS TO DEATH. Sounds like the worst vacation ever.

Jeane said...

Yeah. They did experiments and found that clubbing was the fastest way to kill seals. Seems really brutal to me. Vacation? that's no vacation!