Dead ahead and towering above the low-lying mists of the morning were dark and rocky headlands. As our stubby ship, the Orca, bore down upon the island from the north, these grim promontories took on the tortured shapes and the primordial coloring of extinct volcanoes. The closer our vessel approached to the dramatic coastline the more weird the changing profile of the place became.
Those of us who had never visited Guadalupe Island before were utterly unprepared for the wild scenes revealed by the lifting haze. We had been so intrigued by accounts of the rediscovery of the Townsend fur seal, a creature declared to be extinct on several occasions, by the astonishing comeback of the elephant seals at this island haven and by the promise of other unusual animals of the coast and the deep that we had formed no mental picture of the island itself. But here in the early sunlight was a grotesque volcanic mass rivaling the finest islands of fiction. The Nautilus might have been harbored here, or Ben Gunn have roamed those deep ravines. It was hard to keep in mind that we had sailed only 220 miles southwest from San Diego and that the coast of Baja California was only 140 miles to the east.
The Orca, a 105-foot motor vessel, was once a Coast Guard icebreaker. Now she functions as part of the scientific fleet of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a branch of the University of California at La Jolla, and aboard, under the leadership of Professor Carl L. Hubbs, the eminent biologist, were scientists from the Scripps Institution and the San Diego Museum of Natural History bent on a natural history survey of this Mexican island.
Throughout most of its meager history man had given Guadalupe Island a dirty deal. Early in the last century Russian sealers brought Aleut Indians from Alaska to take the fur seals in hundreds of thousands. Names of ships and dates scratched on boulders indicate that the crews of Yankee ships from New England also shared in the slaughter. Volcanic rocks worn smooth by the sliding bodies of generations of fur seals give evidence to the numbers that once were there. The massive elephant seals were killed in like numbers for their blubber.
February 3, 1958
Whaling vessels put goats ashore more than a century ago, so they would increase and provide fresh meat should the ships return. The descendants of those goats and of others planted there later have ravaged the native vegetation to the point where some plants are now extinct.
As the Orca eased to an anchorage in a cove near the north end of the island, a chorus of sound that is hard to describe came across the smooth expanse of water. Sometimes it seemed like distant carpenters at work, and at others it sounded like a great pot boiling and bubbling.
It came from the shore, and through the glasses we determined that the dark masses along one stretch of beach were not boulders but hundreds of elephant seals lolling on sand and making the curious noises of their kind. On the slope behind them were the deserted barracks where a Mexican garrison had been quartered during World War II. At present a handful of Mexican marines maintain a weather station at the southern end of the island. They and their families, 38 persons in all, are the only inhabitants of the island, which is 22 miles long and between three and seven miles wide.
No sooner had the anchor dropped into the blue water than small boats were put over the side to ferry the scientists, divers and technicians to their selected tasks. This was the beginning of a week during which the island and its environs were subjected to study from the heights to the depths.
Eager to confront the elephant seals, Richard Meek, the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED photographer, and I elected to be put ashore at one of their beaches. With us went Dr. Reid V. Moran, the expedition's tireless botanist, who was bent on a trip high into the interior to collect specimens. Unloading Dr. Moran's gear and a large bottle of drinking water lest a sudden storm keep us marooned for a time, we watched the botanist start up a narrow canyon.
Wild goats grazed on the nearby slopes, and we could spot more in the distant highlands which rise to almost 4,500 feet. Some of the goats were mottled brown and black, some were white, others all black. There were big billies with long, curling horns and nannies followed by light-footed kids. Along the shore were bleached goat skeletons and skulls. The wild goat population of the island has been estimated at various times at 8,000 to 30,000. In periods of rainfall they increase rapidly, but when drought comes they die by thousands. At times there have been attempts to harvest the goats, but such ventures have not endured.
After watching the goats scramble up the cliffs we crossed a dry wash, passed the stone ruins of sealers' shacks built more than a century ago and climbed a small ridge. Just beyond the ridge more than 200 elephant seals lay sprawled in the black sand. Climbing down, we approached the lazing herd. The closer we got the more we were inclined to laugh. Before the day was over we were to laugh a great deal.
Cadillacs with eyebrows
Stretched out in postures of lassitude the fat hulks seemed to have not a single care in the world. They ranged from youngsters five or six feet long to mighty bulls up to 16 feet and weighing between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds, or almost as much as a 1958 Cadillac. Their eyes were huge, and several inches above each eye was a ridiculous eyebrow composed of eight or 10 bristles. Their mouths turned down with a solemnity that didn't seem to fit their comical physiques.
As they sprawled one would occasionally dig down with a flipper and toss the black sand over its back. Here and there one scratched slowly and deliberately with an arched flipper. Their faces and shapes were odd enough but as nothing compared to the noises they made. They belched, gargled, gurgled and burped. They snorted, hissed and their stomachs rumbled. Adult males, which have a trunk 16 inches long, inflated this proboscis, turned it back into their mouths and made a loud "bop, bop, bop, bop," which sounded like a pile driver.
It must be kept in mind that all these sounds were on a gargantuan scale and issued so lustily that the chorus reverberated through adjacent canyons. At one point I walked up behind a sleeping 10-foot male and stepped on one of his hind flippers. He raised his head and for a long spell stared at me with an indignant, if somewhat injured, expression. Then he opened his enormous mouth and emitted a mighty belch. Having expressed his opinion of the intrusion, he dropped his head into the sand and went back to sleep.
"I guess that takes care of you," Meek said.
Beyond the prostrate elephant seals others played in the surf. Their idea of play is to form a compact group and bounce up and down with the waves, biting each other as they bounce. They do this for hours, occasionally pausing to raise their heads in a resounding bellow or gargle.
As we sat on a boulder watching these huge hulks at play it was hard to realize that this northern elephant seal, Mirounga angustirostris, had once been brought to the verge of extermination. This species formerly inhabited a stretch of coast almost 1,000 miles long and reaching north to San Francisco Bay. In 1892 the late Dr. Charles H. Townsend visited Guadalupe aboard a whaling vessel, and the whalers could find only eight elephant seals. They killed seven of them.
Obviously there were more than the one they failed to kill, because a joint U.S.-Mexican expedition in 1922 found 264 adult males after the breeding season. As a result of the reports of this expedition President Alvaro Obregón of Mexico declared the island a reservation and prohibited the molesting or killing of seals. But the main reason why the elephant seals increased rapidly after being so nearly wiped out was that there was no longer a demand for their blubber.
Our expedition counted-2,117, but when the Orca was there during the breeding season last April they found more than 10,000. In the breeding season when they congregate, the bedlam mounts to a mighty crescendo as the giant males fight to defend their harems and the fat pups squeal, yell and bark. Since their successful comeback on Guadalupe the elephant seals are spreading north again to the California coast, including one small group on South Coronado Island, only 21 miles from San Diego.
The Townsend seal
I was particularly anxious to see the Townsend fur seals, as Dr. Townsend, for whom the species was named, had been a friend of mine. For many years he was director of the old New York Aquarium at the Battery. As a young man he had done much work on the marine mammals of the West Coast. He was a member of the international commission which drew up the sealing treaty between the United States, Russia, Great Britain and Japan. This treaty resulted in saving the northern fur seals, which breed on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. Under U.S. protection and supervision they have become an important economic asset, as well as another wildlife species saved from extinction.
But the southern fur seal, a different species, had not fared so well. By 1830 the great herds on Guadalupe had been wiped out, and the sealers thought there were no fur seals left. The remnant left elsewhere multiplied, but later in the century they were killed off again. During a voyage in a sailing vessel in 1888 Dr. Townsend picked up parts of four skulls on Guadalupe, and from those fragments Dr. C. Hart Merriam described the species and named it Arotocephalus townsendi. In 1912 Dr. Townsend returned to the island but came back saying the species probably was extinct.
In 1928 a fisherman sold two young male fur seals to the San Diego Zoo and reported he had seen about 60 more on Guadalupe. Scientists searched for them without success. At about the same time a number of illegal fur seal hides appeared on the Panamanian market, and it was concluded that fishermen had killed off the seals before selling the two live ones to the zoo.
In subsequent years there were occasional reports that fur seals had been sighted, and then on May 12, 1949, Dr. George A. Bartholomew photographed a large bull on San Nicholas Island off the California coast. This positive record led to a renewal of the search. In 1954 an expedition aboard the Orca led by Professor Hubbs found 14 Townsend fur seals among the rocks of Guadalupe.
Later expeditions proved that a small colony of these animals thrived at this lonely island, and the largest count of fur seals since the 1954 discovery by the Scripps expedition had been 107. Counts such as these indicate that the colony must number at least twice that many and maybe more because it is impossible to see them all.
To us, just the sight of these rare marine mammals would have been worth the entire trip. Unlike the carefree elephant seals, the fur seals are shy and easily alarmed. They frequent rocky shores and caves where they hide or dive into the water when approached. With Professor Hubbs standing in the bow of the boat like a viking, we made a two-day trip along the rocky shore line in the outboard. On the first day the professor counted 59, and on the second day his count totaled 75.
Professor Hubbs estimates that the Townsend fur seal population might number anywhere from 200 to 500.
This is a healthy nucleus, and the professor feels that the fur seals can stage another comeback barring illegal poaching. The island is a seal sanctuary, but greater protection is necessary. Mexican officials have indicated that they are going to station a patrol boat there to guard the colony.
S. CORONADO I.
La Jolla San Diego
GULF OF CALIF.
Oceanographically speaking, the Guadalupe Island group off the coast of Baja California is one of the most fascinating treasure-hunting grounds in the world, but no group of pirates ever presented as bizarre an appearance as the expedition reported here by John O'Reilly. There were skin-divers who flung themselves into the sea with reckless eagerness; there was Dr. Werner P. Hueschele, veterinarian of the San Diego Zoo, who stood, with a knife like a cutlass, on deck carving up an elephant seal to preserve its skeleton for the San Diego Museum; there was Dr. Reid V. Moran, the botanist, whose weapon was a spearlike tree pruner. Dr. George E. Lindsay, the museum's president, a mighty man of 285 pounds, scaled cliffs like a native billy goat. Joseph W. Sefton Jr., ex-player in the first Rose Bowl game, was now delicately hunting flies. And, as captain of the whole crew, Professor Carl L. Hubbs (above) was a scientific slave driver who by day usually roosted in the crow's nest or balanced in the bows of the ship's boat collecting specimens by hand and by night gloated, like a true pirate skipper, over the treasures found, some of which are shown on opposite page.
Gently held in the hand of Professor Hubbs, these treasures of the deep were hauled up from 1,200 feet below the surface by the expedition's deep-sea nets. They include lantern fish which provide their own light in the primeval blackness and small, ruby-red shrimps. Along with many strangely beautiful jellyfish, copepods, arrow worms and amphipods, the nets also hauled up from the lower layers of the sea many bristlemouths, which, according to Professor Hubbs, are probably the most numerous fish in the world's waters, although few people ever have an opportunity to see them.