NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTIONS
BETWEEN THE YEARS 1877 AND 1881
EDWARD W. NELSON.
EDITED BY HENRY W. HENSHAW
PREPARED UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE CHIEF SIGNAL OFFICER
ARCTIC SERIES OF PUBLICATIONS ISSUED IN CONNECTION WITH THE SIGNAL SERVICE, U.S. ARMY.
WITH 31 PLATES.
GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE.
Formerly they were abundant all along the Aleutian chain. They are now so scarce among these islands, and the ones that are found there frequent places so difficult of access, that the Aleuts secure very few of them each year. They are still rather common at a few points along the north shore of Unimak Island and the peninsula of Alaska, while small parties are found scattered all along the Aleutian chain, hauling up on certain rocky points and shelves facing the sea, most of which are well known localities to the Aleuts.
In May, 1877, I saw a small party on the rocks on the north shore of Akoutan, and during the same month a fierce storm outside brought a few of them into the harbor at Unalaska. North of the Fur Seal Islands they are extremely rare or unknown at present, although I learned from the Eskimo of their occasional occurrence north to the Yukon mouth and about the shore of Nunevak Island. From the Aleutian Islands eastward and southward they occur all along the coast to California, where their range overlaps that of the southern species.
Large males of Steller’s Sea-lion are from 11 to 18 feet long, according to Mr. Elliott, and weigh about a thousand pounds. The females are much smaller, and weigh about four or five hundered pounds.
After the annual catch of fur seals is secured on the Seal Islands, a drive of several hundred sea-lions is made to procure the skins used in covering the large native boats or umiaks. A few years ago this drive was made very easily, and an abundance of animals found, but at present they are becoming much fewer, and it is almost or quite impossible to secure the full number. It is probably a matter of but a few years before they mill become rare or unknown upon these islands, where they were formerly more numerous than anywhere else.
Like the fur seal, this animal is migratory, arriving at its breeding grounds on the Fur Seal Islands in May, and the last of them leave there when the severe winter weather begins, about the first of January. Their migration is not so general as that, of the fur seal, as some of them are found about the Seal Islands the entire winter during mild seasons.
Mr. Elliott claims that the flesh of a young sea-lion is tender, juicy, and something like veal, but becomes rank and tough when the animal approaches maturity. The same may be said of the flesh of the fur seal. The first of the latter meat I ever ate was at Unalaska, and as there was, a flock of sheep there at the time I was entirely deceived, thinking I had been eating mutton until told that it was young fur seal. The meat had the color and flavor of good mutton.
The natives of the Seal Islands claim that nearly seventy years ago the sea-lions alone occupied nearly all of the shore line of Saint George Island, and numbered several hundred thousand individuals. By direction of the Russians they were driven off repeatedly until they left the place, and the shore was then occupied by fur seals.
These northern sea lions have a “deep base growl and a prolonged, steady roar,” quite unlike the barking note so characteristic of the southern sea-lion of the California coast. To the natives of the Fur Seal and Aleutian Islands this animal is of the same value as the walrus is to the Eskimo of the coast to the northward. Its skin, flesh, intestines, bones, sinews, and oil all come into play as food or in the simple manufactures of the Aleuts.
Like the fur seal they have a dreaded enemy in the Killer Whale, which pursues and captures them at sea and about their rocky resorts. The native hunters when at sea frequently see them leaping high out of the water in useless endeavor to escape their pursuers. At such times they say it is dangerous for an umiak or other small boat to be in the vicinity, as the animal, in its terror, will sometimes leap into and wreck the boat. They are hunted with gun and spear in the Aleutian Islands, but, like most seals, if shot in the water in summer they will sink at once, owing to the small amount of fat on them at that season.
In common with the fur seal, this species has the habit of swallowing stones. Mr. Elliott found stones weighing a pound or two in their stomachs, and preserved one stomach containing over 10 pounds of such stones.
In the North the young are brought forth in June.