nautical heritage. He made regular visits to Dundee’s docks in search of specimens fresh from fishing boats and whaling ships, and built up an outstanding collection of arctic specimens in the college museum. In 1896 this work attracted the government’s attention. For 50 years the powers with interests in the North Pacific—the United States, Russia, and Great Britain, via her colony Canada—had wrangled over the regulation of the fur seal hunt. The same issues that exercise managers of commercially exploited species today were just as contentious then: how many animals could be taken, when and where, and the extent of poaching. The British foreign office commissioned Thompson to study the seal population to assess whether the hunt was, in today’s jargon, sustainable. Besides his marine expertise, he had made a good impression on the foreign secretary’s nephew while at Cambridge.
Thompson sailed to New York in May and traveled overland to Seattle, where he met up with an American team charged with the same mission. They boarded a boat north to the Aleutian Islands, which stretch out into the Pacific off Alaska. Thompson collected specimens of every species that crossed his path, to swell the collection in Dundee. Once he reached the seal colonies, he did all the things that a good conservation biologist should: counting the population and trying to estimate the natural levels and causes of pup mortality.
He also saw seals driven in their hundreds from breeding rookeries to killing grounds. The drive sounds a strange sight, but Thompson’s account of it is unperturbed:
The seals certainly puffed and blew and sweated and steamed; they stopped every now and then to rest … but after a moment they went on briskly. The signs of distress were less painful than I have often witnessed in a flock of sheep on a hot and dusty road, and I have seen drovers show less regard for the comfort of their sheep.
The drive began at 2:00 in the morning, and by 6:00, a herd of nearly 2,000 seals had reached the killing grounds, where teams of men with clubs waited.
The men employed were clean, skilful and vigorous. A single blow, or two at most, dispatched each seal, and I saw no failure of aim, even in the confused mass of seals tumbled pell-mell over one another. They showed no signs of terror; the survivors of each batch [only about half of the driven seals were killed: those either too young or too old were released] made