Comeback on a Castaway's Island

On a Chilean hideaway named for a storybook hero, an "extinct" fur seal returns from the dead

  • Fred Bruemmer
  • Mar 01, 2001

IN DARK LAVA BEACHES of the Juan Fernandez Islands off Chile, fur seals glide in with the waves. They dive through pounding surf with easy, graceful nonchalance and land smoothly on the coastal rocks before me.

I have come here to witness a resurrection of sorts on a strange and remote Pacific outpost. It was here that a marooned sailor named Alexander Selkirk, a fiery-tempered Scot from Largo in County Fife, survived more than four years ashore. His adventure inspired Daniel Defoe, prolific author and "the father of modern journalism," to write the famous Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

The marine mammals I am observing - Juan Fernandez fur seals - once covered these beaches in the hundreds of thousands or more. And then, starting in 1687, sealers came and methodically killed them. Season after season, they brutally harvested the animals. By the 1850s, the Juan Fernandez fur seal was annihilated, considered extinct.

A hundred years later, rumors reached Chile that seals had been sighted near the islands. In 1965, the Chilean scientist N. Bahamonde went to see for himself and discovered 200 of the animals. In 1968, an American expedition led by marine biologist Kenneth Norris confirmed that these were indeed the "extinct" Juan Fernandez fur seals.

Now, as part of a lifelong quest to view and photograph the world's seal species, I am here for myself to watch these marine mammals. Their numbers are small. On the great breeding beaches of yore, they now occupy only a few small coves, like the last thousand survivors of the human race in the vastness of a 100,000-seat stadium. But they are here, and thanks to common-sense conservation efforts, their numbers are growing.

The volcanic Juan Fernandez Islands - two main islands and a spattering of islets near the western edge of the Humboldt Current, which sweeps cold and food-rich water north along the west coast of South America - were discovered in 1563 by the Spanish navigator Juan Fernandez. He stopped briefly and put goats ashore, as future provender for shipwrecked sailors. It was a common practice of the time, but the goats - adaptable, voracious and prolific - wrought ecological havoc.

With little imagination, the main islands were initially called Más a Tierra ("closer to land," referring to South America, 400 miles away) and Más a Fuera ("farther out," 100 miles farther west). Since then, they have been renamed after their most famous resident: Más a Fuera is now Isla Alejandro Selkirk; Más a Tierra is Isla Robinson Crusoe.

The Robinson Crusoe legend began in 1704 with a pivotal misadventure by Selkirk. The mariner, who ran away to sea as a boy, had risen to sailing master aboard the British privateer Cinque Ports, prowling off South America in search of Spanish prey. That year, he made the bad mistake to quarrel with his captain. Selkirk was promptly put ashore on uninhabited Más a Tierra with a gun, powder, shot, axe, knife and food for a few days, and the ship sailed away.

The goats saved him. Selkirk, a tall, agile, vigorous man, lived in a cave and became exceedingly skilled at hunting the animals. He lived on goat meat, fruit, shellfish and the lobsters (today the main wealth of the islands) that filled rock basins at low tide.

Every day he climbed to the top of a 1,700-foot cliff (now called Mirador-lookout-de Selkirk) and scanned the sea, hoping to spot a saving sail. The lonely vigil inspired British poet William Cowper to begin his poem about Selkirk's solitude with the famous line: "I am monarch of all I survey."

Selkirk lived like that for four years and four months. Then two ships in need of fresh water, the Duke and Duchess, sailed in. They were commanded by another privateer, Woodes Rogers (who later went legit, leased the Bahamas and became the islands' first governor). A pinnace sent ashore returned with Selkirk, "a man," noted Rogers dryly, "Cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who looked wilder than the first Owners of them."

Back in Britain, Selkirk became an instant celebrity, his story published in broadsheets and pamphlets. Daniel Defoe enhanced Selkirk's life into the Robinson Crusoe adventure. To provide native color, Defoe changed the locale to the Caribbean, kept the goats but added cannibals, and provided Crusoe with his famous "Man Friday," the native servant whom he acquired on a Friday.

Though Selkirk was saved, the fur seals were not. One of the few men to see the immense colonies before sealing started was the flamboyant, far-roving pirate-explorer-naturalist William Dampier, who visited Más a Tierra in 1683. There, he wrote, "Seals swarm as thick about this Island, as if they had no other place in the World to live in; for there is not a Bay nor Rock that one can get ashore on, but is full of them.... Here are always thousands, I might say possibly millions of them...."

Dampier may have exaggerated a bit. According to Brent Stewart, a research biologist with Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute in California, the population probably numbered no more than several hundred thousand. But it was certainly robust, and at least one recent study confirms Dampier's higher estimates: In a review based on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century kill and sale figures, Chilean scientist Daniel Torres of the Instituto Antartico Chileno concluded that "the total population towards the end of the seventeenth century exceeded four million animals."

For New England sealers, this was a call of fortune. They sailed to the remote islands in winter, the seals' breeding season, when the great beaches were carpeted with males, females and pups. The men moved in among the densely packed animals, smashed skulls with five-foot hickory clubs and flayed the twitching corpses. Amasa Delano, one of the sealing captains, reported that "some men could skin 60 seals an hour."

The men marched on, killing, skinning, salting the precious pelts and hauling them to their ships. The beaches, before so full of life, were now covered with bloody corpses and with hungry, screaming pups next to their skinned mothers. They cried for days and then they died of starvation.

During peak years in the early eighteenth century, men from up to 14 ships killed seals season after season. They were devastatingly efficient. Some pelts were shipped to Europe, but the bulk went to Canton, China, where the dense, lustrous fur was highly prized. Captain Delano "made an estimate of more than 3,000,000 that has been carried to Canton from thence [the Juan Fernandez Islands] in the space of seven years. I have carried more than 100,000 myself...."

In Canton, fur seal pelts were often exchanged for bales of silk and chests of tea. Owners, masters and agents profited greatly. And each sealer, for his dangerous and brutally hard work, received one skin in a hundred, or between $120 to $240 after a successful voyage that might last nearly a year. As the American historian Briton Cooper Busch has pointed out in his book The War Against the Seals, it brought him closer to that "ultimate goal of most [New England] seamen: a farm."

After more than a century of slaughter, the Juan Fernandez fur seal was on the edge of extinction. When Captain Benjamin Morrell of the American Merchant Service visited the islands in 1834, they were "nearly without seals." In the years that followed, the odd sealer still passed to kill the few remaining animals. By the 1850s, the great breeding beaches were empty. The Juan Fernandez fur seal was listed as extinct.

A few obviously did survive. It is now assumed they bred inside remote and inaccessible sea caves. One of the oldest residents on Robinson Crusoe Island (the island now has a human population of 600) is Reynold M. Green Rojas, a man in his eighties. For as long as he could remember, there had been a few seals, he told me, but they were shy and never hauled out on their ancient breeding beaches.

Now, thanks to total protection, the Juan Fernandez fur seal is coming back. From a nadir of probably fewer than 200 animals, its numbers are increasing rapidly. Officials of Chile's Corporación Nacional Forestal estimate that 5,000 seals live on Alexander Selkirk Island and 3,000 on Robinson Crusoe Island. They breed once more on their ancestral beaches, and they are no longer shy.

In 1935, long before the seals were rediscovered, the Chilean government made both islands into national parks and eradicated the feral goats whose ancestors had fed Selkirk. Now Robinson Crusoe Island is also a World Biosphere Reserve. It is a botanist's paradise: Of 140 native island plant species, 101 grow nowhere else on Earth.

Robinson Crusoe Island is small (36 square miles) and split by a central mountain chain into dramatically disparate halves: The north shore gets a lot of rain and is covered with dense rain forest; the south coast is storm-lashed and desert-dry. That's where the fur seals live.

It is a spectacular setting: an immense amphitheater of black lava beach beneath steep cliffs, the rocks smoothly polished by legions of fur seals from the past. An extensive arc of lava rocks and reefs protects the beach from great Pacific waves that shatter against them in explosions of spray and spume. In 1817, a sealer in a shallop was thrown against these rocks, and, according to a witness, "one thigh bone and one arm were the only parts of the body that could be found." Yet fur seals glide in with ease.

Female fur seals are fussy about where they breed and are attracted by the presence of other females. It is these female-favored areas that alpha bulls fight over in late October. To the winner belongs the prime real estate and the females upon it. Shortly after giving birth, the females mate with the local harem bull.

When I visited the beach in December, the harem clusters had long dispersed. Pups slept or played. Females were at sea feeding and returned at one-week intervals to nurse their pups. Young males were play-fighting, gaining strength and skill for the furious fights of future seasons. And alpha males, scarred and lean, slept - their strength and fat reserves depleted by territorial fights and the demands of harem keeping.

Males in their prime are nearly nine feet long and weigh about 350 pounds. They have pointy snouts, bulbous noses and grizzled manes. The rest of the fur is deep brown-black when dry, or glossy black when they emerge from the sea. At first the males threatened me and snarled. But they soon got used to my low-key presence and stared at me with supercilious hauteur.

The females, much smaller than their mighty mates, are only five feet long. They weigh about 100 to 110 pounds and are all elegance: svelte, lithe and graceful.

Both males and females are wrapped in a superb double-layered coat: An outer layer of coarse, oily, water-repellent guard hairs protects a thick layer of air-filled underfur, its hairs so fine that there are 300,000 or more of them on every square inch of the fur seal's body. (In Spanish, the fur seal is called lobo marino de dos pelos - sea wolf with two coats.) This marvelous fur keeps the fur seals warm and dry in the coldest seas. Its beauty and perfection were also the animals' curse; for it they were slaughtered.

The pups are adorable, with huge shining eyes and outsize flippers. Their short, curly hair is jet black above. Tummy and muzzle are cinnamon brown. Most of the time they sleep. Some play with each other. A few of the older ones venture into rock pools for cautious swimming lessons.

When a mother seal returns, she calls loudly. That call, meaning mom and milk, will instantly rouse her pup from the soundest sleep. It answers eagerly. The mother comes, sniffs it to make sure it really is her pup, then stretches out in lovely, languorous repose. The pup then eagerly drinks her cream-thick, fat-rich milk.

Like the wayward seafarer Alexander Selkirk, I spent days with the seals. It was an enchanting time, in which I slowly merged into the life of the little colony, grateful that these animals had miraculously escaped the eternal death of extinction.

Roving editor Fred Bruemmer has photographed 27 of the world's 33 seal species, visiting every continent in the process.

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