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Chapter Three

THE GOLDEN SWARM

They appeared to be of a loving disposition, and lay huddled together, fast asleep, like so many pigs.

CHARLES DARWIN: The Voyage of H. M. S . Beagle
The Whispering Land

The penguin colony near Huichi's estancia had been our southernmost goal. Now, leaving Deseado behind us we drove northward across the flat purple scrub-land towards Peninsula Valdes, where, I had been assured, I would find large colonies of fur seals, and the only remaining colony of elephant seals in Argentina.

Peninsula Valdes lies on the coast of the province of Chubut. It is a mass of land rather like an axe-head, some eighty miles long by thirty broad. The peninsula is almost an island, being connected to the mainland by such a narrow neck of land that, as you drive along it, you can see the sea on both sides of the road. Entering the peninsula was like coming into a new land. For days we had driven through the monotonous and monochrome Patagonian landscape, flat as a billiard-table and apparently devoid of life. Now we reached the fine neck of land on the other side of which was the peninsula, and suddenly the landscape changed. Instead of the small, spiky bushes stretching purply to the horizon, we drove into a buttercup-yellow landscape, for the bushes were larger, greener and each decked with a mass of tiny blooms. The countryside was no longer flat but gently undulating, stretching away to the horizon like a yellow sea, shimmering in the sun.

Not only had the landscape changed in colouring and mood but had suddenly become alive. We were driving down the red earth road, liberally sprinkled with back-breaking potholes,[147] when suddenly I caught a flash of movement in the undergrowth at the side of the road. Tearing my eyes away from the potholes I glanced to the right, and immediately trod on the brakes so fiercely that there were frenzied protests from all the female members of the party. But I simply pointed, and they became silent.

To one side of the road, standing knee-deep in the yellow bushes, stood a herd of six guanacos, watching us with an air of intelligent interest. Now guanacos are wild relatives of the llama, and I had been expecting to see something that was the same rather stocky shape as the llama, with a dirty brown coat. At least, I remembered that the one I had seen in a Zoo many years before looked like that. But either my memory had played me false[148] or else it had been a singularly depressed specimen I had seen. It had certainly left me totally unprepared for the magnificent sight these wild guanacos made.

What I took to be the male of the herd[149] was standing a little in front of the others and about thirty feet away from us. He had long, slender racehorse legs, a streamlined body, and a long slender graceful neck reminiscent of a giraffe's. His face was much longer and more slender than a lama's, but wearing the same supercilious expression. His eyes were dark and enormous. His small neat ears twitched to and fro as he put up his chin and examined us as if through a pair of imaginary lorgnettes.[150]


Behind him, in a tight and timid bunch, stood his three wives and two babies, each about the size of a terrier,[151] and they had such a look of wide-eyed innocence that it evoked strange anthropomorphic[152] gurgles and gasps from the feminine members of the expedition. Instead of the dingy brown I had expected these animals almost glowed. The neck and legs were a bright yellowish colour, the colour of sunshine on sand, while their bodies were covered with a thick fleece of the richest biscuit brown.[153] Thinking that we might not get such a chance again I determined to get out of the Land-Rover and film them. Grabbing the camera I opened the door very slowly and gently. The male guanaco put both ears forward and examined my maneuver with manifest suspicion. Slowly I closed the door of the Land-Rover and then started to lift the camera. But this was enough. They did not mind my getting out of the vehicle, but when I started to lift a black object – looking suspiciously like a gun – to my shoulder this was more than they could stand. The male uttered a snort, wheeled about, and galloped off, herding his females and babies in front of him. The babies were inclined to think this was rather a lark,[154] and started gambolling in circles, until their father called them to order with a few well-directed kicks.

The Whispering Land

When they got some little distance away they slowed down from their first wild gallop into a sedate, stiff-legged canter. They looked, with their russet and yellow coats, like some strange ginger-bread animals, mounted on rockers,[155] tipping and tilting their way through the golden scrub.

As we drove on across the peninsula we saw many more groups of guanacos, generally in bunches of three or four, but once we saw a group of them standing on a hill, outlined against a blue sky, and I counted eight individuals in the herd. I noticed that the herds were commoner towards the centre of the peninsula, and became considerably less common as you drove towards the coast. But wherever you saw them they were cautious and nervous beasts, ready to canter off at the faintest hint of anything unusual, for they are persecuted by the local sheep-farmers, and have learnt from bitter experience that discretion is the better part of valour.[156]

By the late afternoon we were nearing Punta del Norte on the east coast of the peninsula, and the road had faded away into a pair of faint wheel-tracks that wended their way through the scrub in a looping and vague manner that made me doubt whether they actually led anywhere. But, just when I was beginning to think that we had taken the wrong track, I saw up ahead a small white estancia, its shutters tightly fastened, and to the left of it a large Dutch barn or galpon. Knowing that a galpon was generally the centre of any activity on an estancia, I drove up to it and stopped. Three large, fat dogs immediately appeared, barked at us vigorously, and then, obviously thinking that their duty was done, set about the fascinating task of irrigating the Land-Rover wheels. Three peons came out from inside the barn, brown, lean, rather wild-looking men with wide, eager smiles. They were obviously delighted to see us, for strangers there were a rarity. They insisted that we go into the barn, brought chairs for us to sit on, and within half an hour they had killed a sheep and an asado was being prepared, while we sat and drank wine and told them why we had come.

They were fascinated by the thought that I should have come all the way from England just to catch and film bichos,[157] and doubtless thought I was more than a little mad, though they were far too well-mannered to say so. On the subject of elephant seals and fur seals they were very informative and helpful. The elephant seals, they explained, had now had their babies and reared them. This meant that they were no longer to be found in one spot on the beach near the fur seals, which acted, as it were, as their maternity ward.[158] Now they drifted up and down the coast as the mood took them, and were difficult to find, though there were two or three places which they were particularly fond of where they might be located. These favourite haunts were called charmingly enough, the elefanterias.[159] The peons marked on the map the areas in which the elefanterias were to be found, and then they showed me where the biggest concentration of fur seals lived. These, they said, would be easy, for they still had young, and were therefore packed on the beach and easily accessible. Moreover, the peons went on, there was a good camping area just near the fur seal colony, a flat grassy space, sheltered from the wind on all sides by a gentle rise in the ground. Cheered by this news we drank more wine, ate large quantities of roast sheep, and then clambered into the Land-Rover again and set off to look for the camp site.

We found it without too much difficulty, and it was as good as the peons had promised, a small, level plain covered with coarse grass and occasional clumps of small, twisted dead bushes. On three sides it was protected by a curving rim of low hills, covered in yellow bushes, and on the third side a high wall of shingle lay between it and the sea. This offered us some cover, but even so there was a strong and persistent wind blowing from the sea, and now that it was evening it became very cold. It was decided that the three female members of the party would sleep inside the Land-Rover, while I slept under it. Then we dug a hole, collected dry brushwood and built a fire to make tea. One had to be very careful about the fire, for we were surrounded by acres and acres of tinder-dry undergrowth, and the strong wind would, if you were not careful, lift your whole fire up into the air and dump it down among the bushes. I dreaded to think what the ensuing conflagration would be like.

The sun set in a nest of pink, scarlet and black clouds, and there was a brief green twilight. Then it darkened, and a huge yellow moon appeared and gazed down at us as we crouched around the fire, huddled in all the clothes we could put on, for the wind was now bitter. Presently the Land-Rover party crept inside the vehicle, with much grunting and argument as to whose feet should go where, and I collected my three blankets, put earth on the fire, and then fashioned myself a bed under the back axle of the Land-Rover. In spite of the fact that I was wearing three pullovers, two pairs of trousers, a duffel-coat and a woolly hat, and had three blankets wrapped round me, I was still cold, and as I shivered my way into a half-sleep,[160] I made a mental note that on the morrow I would reorganise our sleeping arrangements.

I awoke in that dimly-lit silence just before dawn, when even the sound of the sea seems to have hushed. The wind had switched direction in the night, and the wheels of the Land-Rover now offered no protection at all. The hills around were black against the blue-green of the dawn sky, and there was no sound except the hiss of the wind and the faint snore of the surf. I lay there, shuddering, in my cocoon of clothes and blankets, and debated whether or not I should get up and light the fire and make some tea. Cold though I was under my clothes, it was still a few degrees warmer than wandering about collecting brushwood, and so I decided to stay where I was. I was just trying to insinuate my hand into my duffel-coat pocket for my cigarettes, without letting a howling wind into my cocoon of semi-warmth,[161] when I realized that we had a visitor.

Suddenly a guanaco stood before me, as if conjured out of nothing. He stood some twenty feet away, quite still, surveyed me with a look of surprise and displeasure, his neat ears twitching back and forth. He turned his head, sniffing the breeze, and I could see his profile against the sky. He wore the supercilious expression of his race, the faint aristocratic sneer, as if he knew that I had slept in my clothes for the past three nights. He lifted one forefoot daintily, and peered down at me closely. Whether, at that moment, the breeze carried my scent to him I don't know, but he suddenly stiffened and, after a pause for meditation, he belched.


It was not an accidental gurk, the minute breach of good manners that we are all liable to at times. This was a premeditated, rich and prolonged belch, with all the fervour of the Orient in it. He paused for a moment, glaring at me, to make sure that his comment on my worth had made me feel properly humble, and then he turned and disappeared as suddenly as he had come, and I could hear the faint whisper of his legs brushing through the little bushes. I waited for a time to see if he would come back, but he had obviously gone about his business, so I lit my cigarette and lay shivering and smoking until the sun came up.

Once we had breakfasted and everyone was more or less conscious, we unhitched the trailer, removed all our equipment from inside the Land-Rover and piled it on the ground under tarpaulins, checked the camera equipment, made sandwiches and coffee, and then set off to look for the fur seals. The peons had told us that if we drove half a mile or so down the track and then branched off, across country, towards the sea, we should easily find the colony. What they had not told us, of course, was that driving across country was a nerve-and spine-shattering experience,[162] for the ground was corrugated and pitted in the most extraordinary way, and most of these death-traps were concealed by the bushes, so you would crash into them before you knew they were there, while the bushes screeched along the sides of the Land-Rover in what sounded like an ecstasy of shrill, maniacal laughter. At last I decided that, unless we wanted a broken spring or puncture, we had better continue the hunt on foot, so, finding a more or less level piece of country I parked the Land-Rover and we got out. At once I became aware of a strange sound, like the frenzied roar of a football crowd heard distantly. We walked through waist-high golden scrub until we came out on the edge of a small cliff, and there on the shingle beach below us, at the edge of the creaming waves,[163] lay the fur seal colony.

As we reached this vantage point the noise of the animals smote us, roar, bleat, gurgle and cough, a constant undulation of sound, like the boiling of an enormous cauldron of porridge. The colony, consisting of about seven hundred animals, lay strung out along the beach in a line some ten or twelve deep, and so tightly packed together that, as they shifted and moved in the sun, they gleamed gold, like a restless swarm of bees. Forgetting all about filming I just squatted on the edge of the cliff, staring down at this wonderful collection of animals, completely entranced.

At first we found – as we had done with the penguin colony – that there was so much going on, so much confusion and noise, that you were bewildered, and your eyes were moving constantly up and down this immense moving plate[164] of animals in an effort to catch and translate every moment, until you began to feel dizzy. But, after the first hour, when the shock of seeing such a magnificent mass of animals at close range had worn off somewhat, you found you could concentrate.

It was the adult bulls that first caught and held your attention, for they were so massive. They were quite the most proud and extraordinary-looking animals I have ever seen. They sat with their faces pointed skywards, their shaggy necks bent back so that the fat was scalloped into folds,[165] their snub-noses and fat beery faces[166] peering up into the sky with all the pompous arrogance of the Tenniel illustration of Humpty Dumpty.[167] They had physiques like boxers, the tremendous muscular shoulders tapering down to slender hindquarters, and ending, incongruously, in a pair of limbs that were quite ridiculous. The feet had long slender fingers, carefully webbed, so the impression was that the seal was wearing, for some reason best known to himself, a pair of very elegant frogmen's[168] flippers. Sometimes you would see one old bull stretched out asleep on the sand, blubbering and snoring to himself, while, at the end of his body he would be waving his large flippers to and fro, pointing the slender fingers with all the grace and delicacy of a Balinese dancer.[169] When they walked these huge froglike feet stuck out on either side, and, as the motion of the animal's body was very like a rumba,[170] the effect was extremely funny. Their colouring ranged from chocolate to a rich biscuit brown, fading to russet[171] on the shaggy fur round their shoulders and necks. This made a nice contrast to the wives who were very much smaller and decked out in silver or golden coats. Whereas their husbands were enormous blundering tanks of animals, the wives were slim, sinuous and sexy, with their neat pointed faces and big melting eyes. They were the personification of femininity, graceful to a degree, beautiful, coquettish and at the same time loving. They were heavenly creatures, and I decided that should I ever have the chance of being an animal in this world I would choose to be a fur seal so that I might enjoy having such a wonderful wife.

Although they had some six miles of beach to use, the colony chose to lie in a tight conglomeration, covering an area about a quarter of a mile in length. It seemed to me that if they had spaced themselves out a bit more they would have halved the troubles of the colony, for, packed tightly like this, each bull was a constant state of nerves[172] over his little group of wives, and throughout the colony there were fights breaking out all the time. A lot of the blame for these, I am afraid, was due to the females who – as soon as they thought their husband was not watching – would undulate gracefully across the sand towards the next group, and sit there watching the bull with languishing eyes. It would take a very staunch Presbyterian[173] fur seal to resist the appeal of those pleading melting eyes. But before any infidelity could take place the husband would suddenly make a rapid count and discover that he was a wife short.[174] As soon as he spotted her, he would surge after her, his enormous bulk scattering the shingle like spray, and from his mouth, with its great white fangs, would issue a prolonged, lion-like belching roar. Reaching her he would catch her by the scruff of the neck and shake her savagely from side to side. Then, with a jerk of his head, he would send her spinning across the sand towards his harem.

By this time the other bull would have worked himself into a state of nerves. He would feel that the husband was too close to his wives for safety, and so he would lunge forward with open mouth, uttering fearsome gurgling cries, and the two would join in battle. Most of these fights were merely mock combats, and after a good deal of mouth-opening, roaring and lunging, honour would be satisfied. But occasionally both bulls would lose their tempers, and then it was incredible and frightening to watch how two such ponderous and dropsical-looking[175] creatures could turn into such swift deft and deadly fighters.


The Whispering Land

The shingle would be churned up as the two colossal creatures snapped and barged at each other's fat necks, and the blood spurted out over the fascinated audience of wives and babies. One of the favourite gambits during these fights was to undulate across the shingle towards your opponent, waving your head from side to side, like a boxer feinting.[176] Then, when you got near enough you would lunge forward and, with a sideways and downwards bite, try and slash open the thick hide of your antagonist's neck. Most of the old bulls on the beach had fresh wounds or white scars decorating their necks, and one I saw looked as though someone had slashed him with a sabre, for the wound was some eighteen inches long and appeared to be about six inches deep.

When a bull waddled back to his wives after such a battle they would gather round him in admiration and love, elongating their sinuous necks so that they could reach up and nuzzle and kiss his face, rubbing their gold and silver bodies against his barrel chest, while he stared up into the sky arrogantly, occasionally condescending to bend his head and bite one of his wives gently on the neck.

A lot of the nervous tension that the bulls with wives suffered from, and a lot of the actual fighting was due to the bachelor bulls. These were young bulls, much slimmer and less muscular than the old ones, who had been unable to acquire a wife or wives for themselves at the beginning of the breeding season when the courtship battles take place. These young bulls spent most of their time just sleeping in the sun, or swimming about in the shallow water at the sea's edge. But, every now and then, they would be smitten with an impish desire to irritate their elders and betters[177]. They would swagger slowly along the colony, their great frog's feet stuck out, gazing about them with a benign air of innocence, as though there was not an evil thought in their heads. Then, as they passed a family group in the centre of which squatted an old bull star-gazing,[178] the young bachelor would suddenly swerve and break into an undulating run, getting faster and faster as he approached the group. The females would scatter wildly as he burst through their circle, he would hurl himself at the old bull, give him a quick bite on the neck, and then undulate rapidly away before the old bull really knew what was happening. Then, with a roar of rage the old bull would give chase, but by then the gay bachelor had reached the sea and plunged in, so the old bull, grumbling to himself, would return to round up his scattered wives, and settle himself in their midst for another period of astronomical research.

The ones that seemed to lead the most carefree and pleasant lives were the young, but fully adult bulls, who had only succeeded in getting themselves one wife, they generally lay a little apart from the main colony, their wife and cub alongside them, and spent a lot of time sleeping. They could afford to do this, as it was obviously easier to control one of these high-spirited female seals than to try and cope with the vagaries of six or seven.

I have not as yet mentioned the fur seal pups which were such an important and amusing part of the colony. There were hundreds of them, and they moved continuously through the mass of sleeping, love-making, bickering adults, looking like animated black inkblots. They would lie sleeping on the shingle in the most extraordinary abandoned attitudes, as though they were really balloon animals[179] that had suddenly been half deflated. Then, suddenly, one would wake up and discover that its mother was not there, and it would hoist itself on to its flippers and move sturdily down the beach, employing the strange rumba-like movement of the adult seal. Planting its flippers in the shingle with great determination, it would pause every few yards to open wide its pink mouth and bleat forlornly, like a lamb. Then, after it had wandered some distance in search of its parents, its bravado and strength would desert it, and it would give one more despairing bleat and then flop down on its tummy and sink almost immediately into a deep and refreshing sleep.

There appeared to be a rather vague cr`eche[180] system in operation for some of the pups, for in places there would be groups of them, perhaps ten or twenty together, looking like heaps of curiously shaped coal. There would be a young bull or a couple of females sleeping nearby who were apparently in charge of these cr`eches, for if one of the babies wandered outside the invisible area that formed the cr`eche, one of the adults would rouse itself, undulate after it, catch it up in its vast mouth, give it a good shaking and throw it back into the nursery again. In spite of careful watching I was never able to decide satisfactorily whether these groups of babies were the progeny from one family of seals, or whether they were a mixture from several families. If they came from several families then these groups of babies would be, in effect, a sort of nursery school or kindergarten where the babies were dumped[181] while the parents went down to the sea to swim or feed. I wanted to film the daily behaviour of the pups, but in order to do this one had to pick out one particular baby, and as they were all identical in size and colour this was difficult. Then, just when I had begun to despair, I saw a pup that was recognisable. He had obviously been born later than the others, for he was only half their size, but what he lacked in inches he more than made up for in determination and personality.[182]

When I first noticed Oswald (as we christened him) he was busily engaged in stalking a long ribbon of glittering green seaweed that lay on the shingle, and which he was obviously under the impression was some sort of monstrous sea-serpent which was threatening the colony. He shambled towards it, bleary-eyed, and stopped a yard or so away to sniff. A slight wind twitched the end of the seaweed, and at this obviously threatening display Oswald turned and lollopped off[183] as fast as his flippers would carry him.[184] He stopped a safe distance away and peered over his shoulder, but the wind had died now and the seaweed lay still. Carefully he approached it again, stopping some six feet away to sniff, his fat little body taut and trembling, ready to run should he see the slightest movement. But the seaweed lay quiet in the sun, shining like a ribbon of jade. He approached it slowly and carefully, giving the impression that he was almost tiptoeing on his great flat flippers, and holding his breath in case of accidents. Still the seaweed made no movement. Cheered by this display of cowardice, Oswald decided that it was his duty to save the colony from this obviously dangerous enemy, which was liable to take them unawares. He shuffled his bottom to and fro ridiculously, so that his hind flippers got a good grip in the shingle, and then launched himself at the seaweed. In his enthusiasm he rather overshot the mark, and ended up on his nose in a fountain of shingle, but with a large section of the seaweed firmly grasped in his mouth. He sat up, the seaweed dangling from either side of his mouth like a green moustache, looking very pleased that his first bite had apparently disabled the enemy completely. He shook his head from side to side, making the weed flap to and fro, and then, shambling to his flippers, he galloped off along the beach trailing the weed on each side of him, occasionally shaking his head vigorously, as if to make sure his victim was really dead.


The Whispering Land

For a quarter of an hour he played with the weed, until there was nothing left but a few tattered remnants. Then he flung himself down on the shingle, exhausted, the remains of the weed wound round his tummy like a cummerbund,[185] and sank into a deep sleep.

Presently, when he woke up, he remembered that originally he had been looking for his mother, before his attention was distracted by the weed. So he shambled to his feet and made off down the beach, bleating soulfully. Suddenly in the middle of his grief he noticed a seagull squatting on the shingle near him. Forgetting about his mother he decided that the seagull should be taught a lesson, so he humped himself up indignantly and rumbaed towards it[186] ferociously. The gull watched his approach from the corner of one cold, inimical eye. Oswald undulated across the shingle, panting a little, a look of grim determination on his face, while the gull watched him sardonically. Each time Oswald charged it side-stepped neatly, pattering a few paces on its webbed feet, with the air of a professional matador eluding a very inexperienced bull. Four times this happened, and then the gull grew bored. At the next charge he opened his wings, gave a couple of lazy flaps, and glided off down the beach to a more restful spot.

Oswald, the object of his wrath having vanished, suddenly remembered his mother and started out to search for her, bleating loudly. He made his way towards the most crowded part of the colony, a jumbled mass of cows and bulls all enjoying a siesta.[187] Oswald ploughed his way through them,[188] treading with complete impartiality on cows and bulls alike, scrambling over their backs, treading on their tails, and planting his flippers in their eyes. He left behind him a wake of infuriated adults who had been woken from a refreshing sleep by a large flipper covered with shingle being planted in the most vulnerable portion of their anatomy.[189] At one point he discovered a cow lying on her back, exposing her teats to the rays of the sun, and he decided that it would be a suitable opportunity to stop for a snack. He had just taken a firm hold of one of the teats, and was preparing to imbibe life-giving nourishment,[190] when the cow woke up and looked down at him. For a second she gazed at him fondly, for she was still half asleep, but then she suddenly realised that he was not her son, but some dastardly interloper helping himself to a free drink.[191] With a grunt of wrath she bent down, pushed her nose under his fat tummy, and, with a quick flip of her head, sent Oswald somersaulting through the air to land on the head of a sleeping bull. The bull was not amused, and Oswald had to be pretty nifty on his flippers to escape punishment. He plodded on over the mountain ranges of sleeping seals with grim determination. Then, at last, he slipped while negotiating[192] a particularly rotund female, and fell on top of a young bull who was sleeping next door to her. The bull sat up, snorted indignantly, and then bent down and seized Oswald in his great mouth before the pup could get away. Oswald dangled there by the scruff of his neck, without movement, while the bull decided what was the best thing to be done with him. At last he decided that a little swimming lesson would do Oswald no harm, and so he flopped his way down to the sea, Oswald dangling from his mouth as limp as a glove.

I had often watched the bulls giving the pups swimming lessons, and it was a frightening sight. I felt quite sorry for Oswald. The bull paused at the edge of the surf and started to shake Oswald to and fro, until one felt certain that the pup's neck was broken, and then hurled him some twenty feet out into the waves. After a prolonged submersion Oswald surfaced, flapping his flippers desperately, spluttering, and coughing, and struck out towards the shore. But the bull lumbered into the water and caught him by the neck again, long before he was in his depth,[193] and then proceeded to hold him under the water for five or ten seconds at a time, eventually releasing his hold so that Oswald popped up like a cork, gasping for breath. After this had happened three or four times Oswald was so frightened and exhausted that he tried to attack the bull's great bulk with open mouth, uttering spluttering jarring cries. This, of course, had about as much effect as a pekinese[194] attacking an elephant. The bull simply picked Oswald up, shook him well and flung him out to sea again, and repeated the whole process. Eventually, when it was obvious that Oswald was so exhausted that he could hardly swim, the bull took him into the shallows and let him rest for a little while, but standing guard over him so that he could not escape. When he was rested Oswald was picked up and thrown out to sea again, and the whole lesson was repeated. This went on for half an hour and would have gone on longer, but another bull came and picked a quarrel with Oswald's instructor, and while they were fighting it out in the shallows Oswald made his escape, scrambling back to shore as fast as he could, wet, bedraggled and thoroughly chastened.

These swimming lessons, as I say, were to be seen very frequently, and were agony to watch, for not only was the terror of the pups so piteous, but I was always convinced that the bulls might go too far and actually drown one of them. But the babies appeared to have the elasticity of mind and body that allowed them to survive these savage swimming lessons, and none of them seemed any the worse.[195]

The adults spent ninety per cent of the day sleeping, and only occasionally the young bulls and cows would venture into the water, but it was not until evening that the colony as a whole went swimming. As the sun sank lower and lower, a restlessness would prevail throughout the colony, and presently the females would hump themselves down[196] to the water's edge, and the water ballet would begin. First two or three cows would enter the shallows and start swimming up and down, slowly and methodically. For some time the bull would watch them in a lordly manner, and then he would lift his huge bulk and shoulder his way into the surf with the air of a heavyweight boxer entering the ring. There he would pause and survey the sinuous shapes of his wives before him, while the foam made an Elizabethan ruff[197] of white round his fat neck. His wives, desperately trying to get him to join in their game, would tumble and curve in the water ahead, their coats now gleaming and black with sea-water. Then, suddenly, the bull would submerge, his portly form disappearing beneath the water with a speed and grace that was startling. His blunt, snub-nosed head would appear between the bodies of his wives, and the entire picture would change. Whereas before the females' movements had been slow, gentle curvings of the body on the surface and beneath the water, now the tempo of their play quickened, and they would close in round the bull, making him the focal point of their game. Their movements as smooth as a flow of oil, they would curve over and under him, so that he was like a stocky maypole[198] with the slim, swift ribbons of female seals drifting and fluttering around him. He would sit there with his massive head and neck out of the water, peering with supreme smugness into the sky, while his wives formed a whirlpool around him, weaving and gliding faster and faster, demanding his attention. Suddenly he would yield and, bending his head, he would open his mouth and bite playfully at a passing body. This was the signal for the ballet proper to begin.

The females' arrow-swift bodies and the bulk of the male would entwine like a gleaming black plait, curving and twisting through the water, assuming the most graceful and complicated shapes like a pennant whipped by the wind.

Occasionally one of the young, unattached bulls would attempt to join one of these family groups in their play, and immediately the old bull would forget his game. He would submerge and suddenly reappear at the young bull's side in a crumple of foam, uttering a sort of gurgling roar that had started beneath the surface. If the young bull was quick he would hurl himself sideways in the water, and the old bull's leap would be abortive and he would land on the water surface with a crack like a cannon going off, and the noise would roll and echo down the coast. Then it would be a question of who recovered first, the young bull from his awkward sideways leap, or the old bull from his belly-splitting charge.[199] If the old bull recovered first he would seize the younger one by the neck and they would roll and thrash in the water, roaring and biting in a tidal wave of foam, while the females glided round them watching lovingly the progress of the battle. Eventually the young bull would break free from the savage grip of his adversary and plunge beneath the waves with the old bull in hot pursuit. But in swimming under water the young bull would have the slight advantage that he was not so bulky and therefore slightly faster, and he would generally escape. The old bull would swim pompously back to his wives and squat in the water, staring grandly up into the sky while they swam round him, reaching their pointed faces out of the water to kiss him, gazing at him with their huge melting eyes in an ecstasy of admiration and love.

By this time the sun would have sunk into a sunset of pink, green and gold, and we would make our way back to camp to crouch shivering over the fire, while in the distance, carried by the night wind, steady and bitterly cold, we could hear the noises of the seals, belching and roaring and splashing in the black and icy waters along the empty coast.


Chapter Two A SEA OF HEADWAITERS [97] | The Whispering Land | Chapter Four THE BULBOUS [200] BEASTS



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