John Vonderlin: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Seals

at Ano Nuevo

Story from John Vonderlin

Email John ([email protected])

Hi June,
This article appeared shortly before the Fog Signal article about Ano Nuevo. It has stuff about the seals of Ano Nuevo I’ve never seen published or even hinted at. The passages about the lightkeeper killing the bulls that were killing the pups is poignant and quite mysterious. Enjoy. John
The   seals   of   Ano Nuevo Island are   prac –
tically   unknown   to   both   scientists   and   the
public,   notwithstanding   the   fact   that   the
herds   there   are   the   largest   on   the   Pacific
Coast   and   the   habits   ot”   the   species   are
the   most   distinctive.
In   many   ways   their   habits   are   •omewhat
similar   to   those   of   sea   birds.   Once   a   year
the   rock-,   or   rookeries,   are   covered   witn
seals.   Young   are   born   and   raised   there,
and   then   a   general   migration   takes   place
of   all   hut   the   old   females.   For   mcn’hs
the   rookeries   are   comparatively   deserted.
The   seals   come   and   go   at   regular   intervals.
If   you   will   look   at   a   man   of   California,
and   closely   examine   the   southwestern
portion   of   the   coast   of   Bkn   Maieo   County,
you   will   find   Ano Nuevo Island.   Although
only   about   thirty-five   miles   from   San
Francisco,   in   a   direct   line,   it   is   a   most
difficult   place   to   get   at.   If   every   Using
goes   well   it   can   be   reached   in   about   twelve
hours,   but   should   there   be   a   detention   of
any   kind   the   journey   may   consume   two
days.   The   nearest   town   is   Pescadeio,
fourteen   miles   to   the   north.
Ano Nuevo Island is   cut   off   from   the
mainland   by   a   channel   about   a   nule   wide,
and   the   only   way   to   cross   is   in   the   boat   of
the   keepers   of   the   Government   foe   signal.
The   seal   rocks   are   scattered   to   the   north –
ward   of   the   island,   the   closest   beinj:   only
about   500   feet   away.
It   was   for   the   purpose   of   ascertaining
something   about   the   habits   of   these   seals
and   obtaining   pictures   of   them   that   a
Call   representative   visited   Ano Nuevo
Island last   week,   just   in   the   height   of   the
breeding   season.   Keeper   Bntweil   of   the
fog   signal,   whose   opportunities   for   study –
ing   seals   have   undoubtedly   been   most
favorable,   gladly   Jurnished   all   informa –
tion   and   acted   as   guide   to   the   seal   ro   ks.
Rome   -of   the   facts   that   be   has   gathered   in
regard   to   the   habits   of   seals   and   the
causes   of   their   extermination   are   surpris –
ing   and   valuable.   He   has   watched   the
herds   con-tantly   at   all   seasons   for   a
per.od   of   eight   years,   and   the   location   or
the   rocks,   lying   as   they   do   so   close   to   the
island,   makes   the   seals’   actions   as   easily
observable   as   if   they   were   on   the   stage   of
a   theater.
“Years   ago,”   said   Mr.   Butwell,   “there
used   to   be   tens   of   thousands   of   seals   on
these   rocks,   and   the   killing   of   them   was   a
profitable   industry.   The   hides   were   used
lor   belting   and   sold   for   a   good   price.
”In   ihoie   days   the   rocks   were   leased   to
hunters,   and   the   killing   went   on   at   a
rapid   rate.   Of   course   the   seals   rapidly
diminished   in   numbers,   as   males,   lemaies
aiid   pups   were   killed   indiscriminately.
When   I   came   bere   eight   years   ago   all   this
had   stopped.   No   hunters   were   allowed   on
the   rocks,   and   it   would   seem   as   if   the
herds   should   have   again   multiplied;   but
they   didn’t.   For   (our   years   they   kept   ret –
ting   fewer,   until   there   were   hardly   500
“About   this   time   I   began   to   study   the
cause   of   the   decrease.   From   this   point
here   on   the   island I   can   lock   across   to   the
rocks,   and   by   taking   a   glass   can   bring
the   seals   up   very   close.   I   had   previously
noticed   that   some   of   the   bulis   had   a   habit
of   killing   the   young,   but   had   no   idea   the
evil   was   so   general   as   I   found   it   to   be   on
investigation.   One   morning   I   saw   a   cer –
tain   bull   climb   on   the   rocks   and   kill
about   half   a   dozen   pups.   Others   did   the
same,   so   it   was   soon   apparent   to   me   that
the   bulls   were   largely   responsible   for   the
decrease   of   the   herds.
“After   becoming   convinced   that   a   num –
ber   of   vicious   bull*   did   all   the   mischief   I
began   a   systematic   killing   of   them.   1
used   to   go   over   on   the   rocks   and   lie   in
wait.   Whenever   I   caught   an   old   fellow
in   the   act   of   killing   a   pup   I   put   a   bullet
through   his   head.   The   lirst   season   I
killed   about   fifty   and   saved   many   hun –
dred   pups,   so   that   the   second   year   the
herds   began   to   increase   and   this   year   are
larger   than   they   have   been   since   I   com –
menced   my   extermination   of   the   vicious
“The   habits   of   these   seals   are   most
peculiar   an   l   mysterious.   After   the   pups
are   born   on   the   rocks   the   cows   spend   two
or   three   months   teaching   them   to   swim,
and   then   when   the   time   comes   take   them
to   sea   somewhere   and   leave   them.   The
young   seals   do   not   return   to   the   place   of
tljeir   birth   until   they   are   two   years   old,
but   where   they   spend   the   interval   is   a
mystery.   So   you   see   it   took   two   years   to
tell   whether   the   killine   of   the   vicious
bulls   did   any   good   or   not.   But   lam   sat –
isfied   that   it   did.   At   any   rate   tne   seals
are   increasing   at   a   fair   rate,   and   in   a   lew
years,   with   proper   nursing,   I   think   they
will   be   as   numerous   as   ever.
“But   really   when   we   look   at   it   in   the
right   way   there   is   no   reason   why   the   seals
should   be   preserved.   11   is   purely   a   mat –
ter   of   sentiment.   One   fall-grown   seal   wll
destroy   enough   fish   in   a   week   to   feed   a
pood-sized   town   for   a   month,   and   the
damage   done   by   the   herd   ‘a   beyond   con –
ception.   Seals   are   really   the   coyotes   of
the   sea,   and   if   we   look   after   our   own   in –
teresta   we   w   ou!d   be   making   efforts   to   de –
stroy   them   instead   of   preserving   them.
However,   it   is   not   likely   they   will   be   de –
stroyed,   as   they   have   ceased   to   be   worth
anything   coramerc   ally.
“Tiie   largest   bull   on   tfee   rocks   would   not
yield   enough   hide,   whiskers,   etc.,   to   sell
for   $1   50.   When   seal   hides   were   used   tor
belting   they   were   worth   about   .s.”>   each,
but   since   rubber   I.aa   been   used   for   this
purpose   they   are   no   longer   wanted.   Seal
hide   is   only   used   nbw   for   making   buffing
wheels,   and   of   course   the   demand   is   very
light.   Really   the   seals   are   not   worth   kill –
ing   should   one   be   so   inclined,   and   any   at –
tempt   to   do   so   as   a   matter   of   business
would   surely   result   in   loss.”
Every   statement   made   by   Mr.   Butwell
was   borne   out   by   observation.   Standing
on   the   northern   edge   of   Ano Nuevo
Inland   the   seals’   methods   of   destroying
fish   could   be   readily   seen.   The   tide
sweeps   rather   swiftly   through   the   chan –
nel   between   the   two   points,   and   naturally
a   school   of   lisli   would   be   carried   alone
wilh   it.   The   rookeries   will   be   thickly
covered   w”h   s<als,   but   the   instant   a   cer –
tain   foamy   streak   appeared   on   the   surface
of   the   water   there   will   be   an   almost   in –
stantaneous   plunge   into   the   sea.   Then
the   slaughter   commences.
The   surface   of   the   water   is   churned   into
foam   and   the   frightened   fish   dart   in   ail
(Mrections   only   to   run   into   more   seals.
The   amphibians   bump   into   one   another,
roar   and   r   lunge   after   their   jr^y.   All   is
tumult,   commotion   and   death   to   ihe   fi-h.
For   a   few   minutes   the   seals   undoubtedly
sa   ivfy   th’ir   appetites   by   eating   all   the
fish   they   catch,   but   after   that   they   simply
kill   for   fun.   When   a   seal   is   hungry   he
will   swallow   a   iish   whole   and   be   chasinc
another   while   his   victim   is   still   in   h;s
throat.   Bnt   when   his   hunger   grows   less
w   Jj   &   IsSßilr   ii-
ravenous   he   simply   bites   out   the   back   and
throws   the   rest   away.   When   he   has   had
all   he   wants   the   sea!   playfully   rolls   over
the   surface   of   the   waves,   catches   a   rish
and   gives   it   a   crunch.   Of   course   deatn   is
instantaneous   and   the   body   of   the   tish   is
allowed   to   drop   into   the   >ea.   Providing
the   air   bladders   of   the   fish   have   not   been
broken   the   body   will   rloat,   and   often   the
surface   of   the   water   will   be   literally   cov –
ered   with   lar^e   saimon,   sea   bass   and
trout—enough   to   feed   a   town.   Ot   course
many   more   fish   sink   from   sight,   so   that
the   destruction   is   Mm   ply   appalling.
The   fact   that   the   bulls   kill   the   youne
seals   would   appear   to   be   simply   another
demoQ;-tration   of   a   certain   admitted   fact
of   natural   history.   How   such   things
come   about   is   of   course   a   mystery,   but
there   are   numerous   instances   ot   the   same
kind.   It   would   seem   as   if   nature   bad   con –
cluded   that   it   was   tune   for   a   certain
species   to   become   extinct   and   took   this
means   of   accomplishing   her   end.   That
s>be   would   always   succeed   goes   without
saving—except   where   civilization   ateps   in
and   puts   a   slop   to   it.
The   most   common   demonstration   of
this   is   the   case   of   the   ordinary   barnyard
fowl.   It   is   a   weli-k’nown   fact   that   where
tuere   are   as   many   cocks   as   hens   chicks
cannot   be   raised.   The   cocks   kill   them,
and   if   they   were   unmolested   the   species
would   soon   become   extinct.   But   civiliza –
tion   steps   in   and   destroys   certain   of   the
cocks.   Ad   a   consequence   we   have   all   the
chit-Kens   we   want.
Regardless   of   the   destructive   propensi –
ties   of   the   s-eat   and   a   number   of   bis   objec –
tionable   traits,   he   is   the   most   picturesque
creature   that   lives   in   tie   sea,   and,   it
might   be   added,   the   most   picturesque   that
lives   on   land.   Like   every   other   living
creature,   the   seal   has   good   traits   as   well
as   bad   traits,   and   is   most   interesting   to
watch.   While   it   is   a   most   difficult   matter
to   reach   the   seal   jookeries   the   experience
is   well   worth   the   trip.   It   is   replete   with
incident,   although   not   what   would   be
called   dangerous.
At   low   tide   it   is   possible   to   walk   from
Ano Nuevo Island to   the   seal   rocks.   But
not   “with   a   dry   loot,”   as   the   sailord   are
wont   to   say.
Just   at   present   the   rookeries   are   in   their
glory.   The   pups   have   all   been   born   and
some   of   them   are   over   a   month   old.   At
the   time   of   The   Call   representative’s
visit   to   the   rocks   Mr.   Butwell   had   just
mads   up   his   mind   to   dispose   of   a   few
vicious   bulls   he   bad   seen   killing   ‘the
young,   and   h«   led   the   way   from   the   island
to   the   rookeries.
Climbing   down   the   northern   diff   of   the
island the   way   lay   over   moss-   cove   red
rocks   laid   bare   by   the   low   tide.   Walking
is   difficult   work,   as   the   ruo3s,   beautiful   as
it   looks,   affords   a   poor   foothold.   In   fact
it   affords   no   foothold   at   all,   and   it   is   only
by   the   greatest   care   that   slipping   is   pre –
vented.   Between   the   rocks   arc   pools   of
clear   water,   several   inches   de<?D,   that
must   be   waded   through   and   care   exercised
to   prevent   being   tangled   in   the   lone,   |   air,   and   falling   on   the   rocks   were   crushed
slimy   tendrils   of   seaweed.   to   death.   Others   were   thrown   into   the
Just   before   the   seal   rock   is   reached   sea   and   drowned,   wl>lie   a   few   were   thrown
there   is   a   channel   about   two   feet   deep   and   with   only   enough   force   10   braak   their   rib-,
twenty   feet   wide   that   must   be   waded,   so   they   would   wallow   around   helplessly
The   seals   show   little   signs   of   fear.   A   to   eventually   die   in   agony,
few   have   plunged   from   the   cliff,   but   the   At   mis   stage   of   the   game   Mr.   Butwell
others   look   at   the   intruders   with   curiosity   raised   his   ride   and   put   a   bullet   behind   the
a   few   moments   and   then   seem   to   forget.   brute’s   ear.   With   a   thud,   it   leli   to   the
Seen   from   across   the   narrow   channel,   rock,   but   although   a   45-caliber   bullet   with
the   h«>rd   of   seals   lining   the   edge   of   the   ninety   prams   of   powder   behind   it   had
cliffs   w;is   a*   grand   n   xißht   ns   the   world   been   tired   inlo   its   head,   the   bull   was   not
affords.   There   wer6   thousands   and   thou-   dead.   It   quivered   and   flopped,   and   then
sands   of   the   enormous   creatures,   closely   a   number   of   cows   rushed   up   and   attacked
packed   in   together   like   a   flock   ot   birds,   it   fiercely.   These   were   chased   off   with
In   fact,   the   general   effect   of   the   herd   was   stones.
that   of   penguins.   All   the   seals   roar   vio –
lently,   ?o   that   it   is   impossible   to   bear   the
human   voice.   What   monsters   they   are,
and   what   power   they   possess   of   which
they   arc   unconscious.
Just   before   wading   the   channel   Mr.
Butwell   discharged   his   rifle.   It   was   the
rirst   time   the   seals   bad   heard   the   sound
this   year,   and   in   an   instant   tbere   was
consternation.   Hundreds   of   tons   of   flVsh
dropped   into   the   sea   in   a   moment,   ati>i
the   waves   rose   to   tbe   top   of   the   cliff,   while
the   spray   dashed   taiph   into   the   air.   It
was   several   moments   before   the   water
became   quiet   again,   and   t>   en   the   herd
was   seen   swimming   in   a   bunch,   undecided
what   to   do,   and   roaring   with   all   their
might.   Although   the   sea   was   fairly   black
with   seal;1,   hundreds   remained   on   the   top
of   the   cliffs.   These   were   the   old   cows,
who   in   some   way   seemed   to   realize   that
they   were   in   no   danger.
On   the   opposite   side   of   the   channel,
which   was   waded   with   difficulty   and   at
the   expense   of   getting   wet   to   the   waist,
there   was   a   large   number   of   puns   floun –
dering   helplessly   over   the   moss-covered
rocks.   Nurnbersof   them   were   ha   f-uidden
in   tiny   caves   at   the   base   of   the   cliff,   but
came   out   intending   to   make   friends.
They   did   not   show   the   slightest   fear,   but
on   the   contrary   seemed   to   want   to   be
potted.   Ttiey   allowed   themselves   to   be
patted   on   their   backs,   and   in   other   ways
showed   pleasure   at   receiving   attention.
A   youns   seal   is   one   of   the   moat   pathet –
ic-lookinj;   creatures   that   live.   Its   ex –
pression   is   mucn   like   that   of   a   lamo,   and
it   will   look   at   you   out   of   its   large   gray
eyes   as   if   it   really   has   leeting.   The   little
fellows   will   follow   one   around   the   rock
utterin.-   bleats   like   a   goat.   In   color   these
pups   are   a   light   jrray,   with   black   on   the
ends   of   the   fLppers.
The   seals   of   Ano Nuevo Island,   while
belonging   to   the   same   g–nus   as   those   on
the   Farallones   and   at   the   Cliff,   are   a   dis –
tinct   srecies.   They   are   very   light   in
color.   Some   of   the   cows   aro   the   color   of
manilla   wrapping-paper   and   the   darkest
of   the   bulls   are   a   sort   of   ocher.   They   are
almost   the   size   of   a   walrus,   a   few   of   them
being   caprble   of   raising   tbeir   heads   about
six   ieet   nb;v3   the   rock,   while   still   keep –
ing   their   flippers   on   it.   Many   oi   them
will   measure   eleven   feet   in   length,   when
stretched   out,   and   weigh   at   least   a   ton
and   a   half.   It   is   all   that   four   men   can   do
to   roll   a   dead   bull   over   a   level   and   smooth
place.   To   roll   it   up   hill   for   even   a   few
feet   is   out   of   the   question.
The   cliffs   around   the   seal   roofceries   are
about   twenty   feet   high   at   low   tide   and
somewhat   diiiicult   of   ascent.   The   rocks
are   greasy,   from   the   seals   climbing   over
them,   and   afford   a   poor   footholi,   as   well
as   being   almost   perpendicular.   The   top,
however,   is   in   the   form   of   a   s-eries   of   ter –
races   or   steps.   Each   of   these   is   about
two   feet   high,   and   the   spnee   between
them   is   absolutely   Hat   at   the   eastern   wall,
although   the   whole   rock   tips   to   the   west.
As   soon   as   the   top   of   the   rocK   became
visible   the   work   of   the   bull   seals   was   only
too   apparent.   Dead   pops   were   scattered
on   all   sides   and   lcme   ones   were   strug –
gling   around,   crying   piteousiy.   The   old
cows   paid   little   attention   and   showed   no
siens   of   fear.   Their   purs   crawled   close   to
them,   but   the   old   ones   seeraod   to   know
that   they   were   absolutely   safe   and   made
not   the   least   move   to   protect   them.
After   waiting   quietly   behind   a   project –
ing   ledge   of   rock   and   allowing   most   of
the   seal   3to   crawl   baci   on   to   the   top   of
the   cliff   an   old   bull   was   seen   at   the   south
aide   of   the   island,   bellowing   fiercely.
“That’s   one   of   the   fellows   I   am   after,”
said   Mr.   Butwsll.   “Now   watch   him.
I   have   seen   him   kill   a   dozen   young   ones
and   disable   several   of   the   young   females.”
Watching   his   chance,   the   monster
floated   on   the   top   of   a   wave,   and   then
made   a   leap   that   landed   him   on   the
rock,   which   be   struck   so   hard   as   to   shake
it.   Rushing   at   a   rroup   of   cows,   ha
pushed   them   over   the   cliff   into   the   water.
Then   he   made   a   charge   into   a   number   of
pups   that   were   sleeping   peacefully   in   the
sunshine.   He   simply   dropped   on   two
or   three   of   the   delpless   creatures   and
crushed   the   lives   out   of   them.’   Then   he
seized   those   within   his   reach   and   becan
tossing   them   in   all   directions.   Some
were   thrown   at   least   twenty   feet   luto   the
It   is   remarkable   the   amount   of   vitality
there   is   in   a   seal.   Five   bullets   had   to   be
tired   into   the   head   of   the   one   mentioned
before   it   finally   lay   still.   Of   course   if   a
single   bullet   had   really   reached   to   the
brain,   it   would   have   died   instantly,   but
this   is   an   almost   impossible   thing   to   do,
as   the   bullets,   in   some   instances,   simply
fracture   the   skull   instead   of   going
through   it.
When   the   bull   was   dead   at   last,   the   cows
on   the   rock,   although   only   eight   or   ten
feet   away,   allowed   it   to   be   examined   with –
out   show   ins,-   any   si^ns   of   disturbance.   If
anything,   the   death   of   tile   bull   caused
them   pleasure.
The   mother   seals,   however,   are   not
always   mild.   If   they   in   any   way   come   to
think   that   their   younc   are   in   danger   they
wiil   fight   fiercely,   and   if   it   becomes   ne –
cessary   to   wound   one   of   them   she   will   not
leave   the   cliff   uniess   her   pup   is   where   she
can   reach   it.   The   cows   are   the   best   of
mothers,   and   when   their   pups   are   very
young   will   not   leave   them   for   a   moment.
Generally   it   is   possible   to   drive   off   a
cow   seal   by   throwing   stones   at   her.
Should   one   be   struck   in   the   face   she   will
show   signs   of   fear   and   in   most   instances
retreat.   Should   she   refuse   to   do   this   it   is
necessary   to   get   out   of   her   way;   but   even
this   course   Is   dangerous,   as   the   rocks   are
slippery,   and   should   a   man   fall   and   the
seal   spring   ou   him   his   life   would   be
crushed   out   instantly.
It   is   a   remarkable   fact   that   no   scientific
men   have   ever   made   a   study   of   the   seals
of   Ano Nuevo Island.   The   fog   signal   loc –
book   shows   that   none   have   ever   been
there,   and   the   only   reason   that   can   be
given   is   that   it   is   not   generally   known
that   any   seals   ever   come   to   the   island.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.