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Chapter Four


They did not remain long under water, but rising, followed us with outstretched necks, expressing great wonder and curiosity.

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

After we had spent some ten days filming the fur seals, I decided that, reluctant though I was to leave these beautiful and fascinating animals, we really ought to move on and try and locate the elephant seals before they left the peninsula in their southward migration. So, for the next four days, we drove to and fro about the peninsula searching for the elefanteria, and seeing a variety of wild-life, but no elephant seals.

I was amazed and delighted at the numbers of creatures we saw on the Valdes Peninsula. When I thought that, a few miles away across the isthmus, lay hundreds of miles of scrub-land which we had driven through without seeing a single living creature, and yet on the peninsula life abounded, it seemed incredible. It was almost as if the peninsula and its narrow isthmus was a cul-de-sac[201] into which all the wild-life of Chubut had drained and from which it could not escape. I wish that it were possible for the Argentine Government to make the whole peninsula into a wild-life sanctuary, for which it seems to have been designed by nature. To begin with you have a wonderful cross-section of the Patagonian fauna, all concentrated in a limited area, and most of it very easy to see. Secondly the whole area could be easily and effectively controlled by virtue of the narrow isthmus connecting it to the mainland; a check point on this could keep an adequate control on the people who entered and left the area, and keep an eye out for the sort of "sportsmen" (of which there are some in every country throughout the world) who would think it fun to chase guanaco in fast cars, or pepper the bull fur seals with buckshot.

In our search for the elefanteria we covered a lot of the peninsula, and the commonest bird we saw was undoubtedly the martineta, a species of tinamu.[202] It is a plump, partridge-shaped little bird, about the size of a bantam. Its plumage is a rich array of autumn browns, speckled and streaked with golds, yellows and creams in an intricate and lovely pattern. Its cheeks are a pale cream colour, with two black stripes showing up well on this background, one running from the corner of the eye to the neck and the other running from the edge of the beak to the neck. On its head there is an elongated crest of dark feathers, which curves like a half-moon over its head. It has large, dark eyes, and a general air of innocent hysteria.

Martinetas were to be seen everywhere along the rough roads in little groups of five or ten. Ridiculously tame, they would stand in the middle of the road, watching the Land-Rover's approach with wide eyes, bobbing their heads so that their silly crests twitched and fluttered, not bothering to move until you slowed down within a few feet of them and blew the horn. Then, stretching out their necks and holding their heads low, as if searching the ground for something they had lost, they would scuttle off into the scrub. They were most reluctant to fly, and in order to make them do so you had to pursue them for considerable distances through the undergrowth. Then, when they felt you were coming too near, they would launch themselves into the sky with an air of desperation. It was a curious, laboured flight, like that of a bird which has never learnt to use its wings properly. They would give four or five frantic flaps of their wings, and then glide until their fat bodies had almost dragged them to earth again, when they would give another series of wild flaps and then glide on a bit further. As they flew the rush of wind through their feathers produced a curious wailing note, that rose and fell flute-like, as they flapped and glided away. Their partiality for sitting in the middle of the road was due to the fact, I think, that it was only on these bare surfaces that they could construct the best dust-baths. In many places they had scooped out quite deep depressions in the red earth, and you could see three or four of them standing patiently waiting their turn, while one member of the flock rolled and kicked absurdly in the bath, fluttering its wings to throw the dust over its body.

These lovely, slightly imbecile birds are, of course, ground-nesting, and I think that they themselves, their eggs and their young, form an important item of diet among the carnivorous mammals of the peninsula, particularly the pampas fox, which is a common predator in the area. They are slim, grey, dainty little animals, with incredibly slender and fragile-looking legs. They appeared to hunt as much by day as by night, and were usually to be seen in pairs. They would suddenly dash across the road in front of us as we drove along, their bushy tails streaming out behind them like puffs of grey smoke, and on reaching the other side of the road they would skid to a halt and, squatting on their haunches, examine us craftily.

At one of the places in which we camped a pair of these little foxes paid us a visit, the only animal apart from the guanaco to do so. It was about five in the morning, and from my bed under the rear axle of the Land-Rover I was watching the sky turn green with dawn, while, as usual, trying to pluck up the courage to quit the warmth of my blankets and light the fire for breakfast. Suddenly, from the yellow scrub around us, the two foxes appeared as unexpectedly and as silently as ghosts. They approached the camp cautiously, with the conspiratorial air of a couple of schoolboys raiding an orchard, with many pauses to sniff the dawn wind. It was fortunate, at that precise juncture, that no one was snoring. I can put it on record that there is nothing quite so effective for scaring off wild animals as three women in the back of a Land-Rover, all snoring in different keys.

Having circled the camp without mishap, they grew bolder. They approached the ashes of the fire, sniffed at them deeply, and then frightened each other by sneezing violently. Recovering from this shock they continued their investigation and found an empty sardine tin, which, after a certain amount of low bickering, they proceeded to lick clean. Their next discovery was a large roll of bright pink toilet paper, one of the few luxury articles in our equipment. Having proved that it was not edible, they then discovered that if it was patted briskly with a paw it unravelled itself in the most satisfactory manner. So, far the nest ten minutes, they danced and whirled on their slender legs, hurling the toilet roll to and fro, occasionally taking streamers of it in their mouths and leaping daintily into the air, returning to earth with the paper wrapped intricately round their necks and legs. This game was conducted so silently and so gracefully that it was a delight to watch, and their agile bodies were well set off against the green sky, the yellow-flowered bushes and the pink paper. The whole camp site was taking on a gay carnival air, when somebody in the Land-Rover yawned. The foxes froze instantly, one of them with a piece of toilet paper dangling from his mouth. The yawn was repeated, and the foxes vanished as silently as they had come, leaving – as a souvenir of their visit – some hundred and twenty feet of pink paper fluttering in the breeze.

Another creature that we saw very frequently was the Darwin's rhea,[203] the South American counterpart of the African ostrich. These birds were smaller than the rheas from Northern Argentina, more delicate in build and a more pearly grey in colour. They were generally in small flocks of five or six, and on many occasions we saw them moving through the scrub in conjunction with a flock of guanaco. I think one of the loveliest sights we saw on the peninsula was a herd of six guanaco with three graceful cinnamon-coloured babies, trotting slowly through the golden scrub in company with four Darwin's rheas, who were ushering along a swarm of twelve young, each dressed in its striped baby plumage, so that they looked like a line of tiny fat wasps running close to their parents' great feet. While the baby rheas were very sedate and orderly, like a school crocodile,[204] the baby guanacos were more exuberant and unruly, dancing about in amongst the adults, in exciting, daring and complicated gambols. One of them carried out such an intricate gambol that he humped into one of the adults and received a sharp kick in the stomach as punishment, after which he became very subdued and trotted quietly along behind his mother.

If undisturbed the rheas would pace along in a very regal manner. But, occasionally, we would come upon them when they were on the road and immediate panic would ensue. Instead of swerving off into the scrub, they would set off in a disorderly cluster down the road, running with the slightly effeminate grace of professional footballers. As we drove the Land-Rover closer and closer they would increase their speed, lowering their long necks groundwards, their feet coming up so high with each step that they almost touched what passes for a chin in a rhea. One I paced[205] in this manner ran six feet in front of the Land-Rover bonnet[206] for a distance of half a mile, averaging between twenty-five and thirty miles an hour. Eventually, when you had followed them like this for some considerable time, it would suddenly occur to them that they might be safer in the scrub. So they would put on a sudden burst of speed, open their pale wings in a graceful gesture, swerve off the road with a ballet-like grace and go bouncing away into the distance.

These rheas, like the common rhea of the north, have communal nests, that is to say several females lay their eggs in one nest. This is a mere scrape in the ground, lined with some dry grass or a few twigs, and you can find as many as fifty eggs in the one nest. As in the common rheas the male Darwin's rhea does the hard work of incubating the eggs and rearing the young when they hatch.

The Whispering Land

The highly-polished eggs are a fine green colour when just laid, but the side that is towards the sun soon fades, first to a dull mottled green, then yellowish, then to pale blue and finally to white. The rheas are so prolific that their eggs, and, to a large extent, their young, form an important item of diet for the predators of the peninsula.

Another creature which was very common, and which we frequently met on the roads, was the pinche or hairy armadillo. We saw them just as much by day as by night, but the time they were most frequently seen was towards evening in the rays of the setting sun, trotting to and fro over the road surfaces, sniffing vigorously, looking like strange clockwork toys, for their little legs moved so fast they were a mere blur beneath the shell. They are fairly thickly cloaked with long, coarse white hair, but I should not have thought that this would have provided them with any protection from the cold in the winter. I presume they must hibernate in the winter months, for there could be nothing for them to eat as the ground is frozen to a depth of several feet. All the ones we caught were covered with a tremendously thick layer of fat, and their pale pink, heavily wrinkled bellies were always bulging with food.

The Whispering Land

Their main diet must consist of beetles, their larvae, and the young and eggs of ground-nesting birds like the martineta, though sometimes they may come across a windfall[207] in the shape of a dead sheep or guanaco. Frequently they could be seen right down on the sea-shore, trotting briskly along the tide line, looking like small, rotund colonels on a Bournemouth sea-front,[208] imbibing the health-giving ozone, though they would occasionally spoil the illusion by stopping to have a light snack of a dead crab, a thing I have never seen a colonel do. Watching all this wild-life was, of course, fascinating, but it was still not bringing us any nearer to our objective, which was the elephant seals. We had, by now, covered quite a large area of the coast, without any success, and I began to think we were too late, and that the elephant seals were already drifting southwards towards Tierra del Fuego[209] and the Falkland Islands. But just when I had given up hope we discovered an elefanteria which no one had told us about, and then we only found it by luck. We had been walking along a fairly high cliff, pausing every quarter of a mile or so to examine the beach below us for signs or life. Presently, we rounded a small headland and came to a bay where the beach at the base of the cliff was covered in a tumbled mass of rocks.

The Whispering Land

Some of these rocks were so large that, from our vantage point, we could not tell what might be lying behind them, so, after searching along the cliff for a short way, we found a rough path which led us down to the shore, and made our way down to investigate.

The beach was of bright mottled shingle, each pebble sea-polished so that it shone in the evening sun. The boulders, some as large as a cottage, lay tumbled haphazardly along the beach, grey and fawn in colour. Some of them were so large and fretted[210] into such weird shapes by the wind and the sea, that it was a major operation scrambling over them, weighted down as we were with the cameras and equipment. We struggled through and over them for some distance, and then decided that what we needed was food. So, choosing a rock that had been moulded to make a natural seat, we sat down and unpacked our food and wine. I was convinced by then that there was not an elephant seal for miles, and I was thoroughly depressed and irritated with myself for having spent so much time on the fur seals.

"Well, we might find some tomorrow," said Jacquie soothingly, handing me a sandwich that appeared to have three-quarters of the Patagonian topsoil adhering to it.

"No," I said, viewing this sustenance with a jaundiced eye,[211] and refusing to be comforted, "they've gone south now. They've had their babies and left. If I hadn't spent so much time on those damned fur seals we might have found them."

"Well, it's your own fault," said Jacquie logically.

"I kept telling you that you had enough film of the fur seal, but you kept insisting we spend just one more day."

"I know," I said gloomily, "but they were such wonderful creatures, I couldn't tear myself away."

Marie, with the air of one who is making the best of a disaster,[212] seized a bottle of wine, and as the cork popped out of the bottle a large, slightly elongated and egg-shaped boulder some ten feet away gave a deep and lugubrious sigh, and opened a pair of huge, gentle, liquid-looking eyes of the deepest black, and gazed at us placidly.

Once it had thus revealed itself as an elephant seal, one wondered why one had ever thought it was anything else; and a close and excited scrutiny of the surrounding beach showed us that we were, in fact, sitting next to twelve of the gigantic beasts, which had all remained calmly sleeping while we had walked up to them, seated ourselves, and unpacked our food like trippers[213] at Margate. They so closely resembled the rocks amongst which they lay that I began to wonder how many other groups we had walked past in our search for them. After watching the fur seals, I had expected the elephant seal colony to be a much more boisterous and vivacious lot, whereas here they were, lying about the beach in attitudes of relaxed abandon,[214] displaying about as much boisterous-ness as could be expected from a convention of dropsy sufferers having a chess tournament in a Turkish bath.[215] We walked among the huge, snoring carcases, and by investigation we discovered that of the twelve animals there three were males, six were females, and three were well-grown young. The babies measured about six feet in length, and the females about twelve to fourteen feet. The real bulk was reserved for the males. Two of these were young bulls, each about eighteen feet in length, while the last was a fully adult bull, and measured twenty-one feet in length.

This bull was a magnificent beast, with a huge barrel-like body, and a great carunculated nose, like that of a confirmed gin-drinker. He lay on the shining shingle like a colossal blob of putty, occasionally sighing deeply so that his nose wobbled like a jelly, or every so often waking up sufficiently to ladle some damp shingle on to his back with one of his flippers.

The Whispering Land

His placidity towards our intrusion was extraordinary, for we approached within three or four feet to measure and take photographs, and all he did was to open his eyes, survey us dreamily, and sink back into sleep again.

For me this was a tremendously exciting experience. Other people may have a burning ambition to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa,[216] or visit Venice, or see the Acropolis[217] before they die. But my ambition had been to see a live elephant seal in his natural environment, and here I was, lying on the shingle eating sandwiches within five feet of one, who lay there looking not unlike a baby barrage balloon[218] which has, unaccountably, been filled with dough. With a sandwich in one hand and a stopwatch[219] in the other I checked on his breathing, which is one of the many remarkable things about an elephant seal. They breathe fairly regularly some thirty times during five minutes, and then they stop breathing for a time, which varies from five to eight minutes. Presumably this is of great use to them when they are at sea, for they can rise to the surface, breathe, and then sink below the water and hold their breath for considerable period without having to resurface and refill their lungs. I was so carried away, lying there with these gigantic and fantastic animals within touching distance, that I proceeded to give the others a lecture on the elephant seal.

''It's quite extraordinary the soundness of their sleep. Do you know there was one naturalist who actually went and lay on top of an elephant seal without waking it?"

Jacquie surveyed the colossal animal in front of me.

"Rather him than me,"[220] she said.

"Apparently the females don't become sexually mature until they are two years old. Now those babies over there are this year's brood."

"This year's brood?" Jacquie interrupted in astonishment. "I thought they were about a year old."

"No, I should say they are four or five months old."

"How big are they when they're born, then?"

"Oh, about half that size, I should think."

"Good God!" said Jacquie with feeling. "Fancy giving birth to a thing that size."

"There you are," I said. "It just goes to show that there's always someone worse off than you are."

The elephant seal, as if in agreement, gave a deep, heart-rending sigh.

"Do you know that the intestine of an adult bull can measure six hundred and sixty-two feet?" I inquired.

"No, I didn't," said Jacquie, "and I think we'd all enjoy our sandwiches more if you refrained from divulging any more secrets of their internal anatomy."

"Well, I thought it would interest you."

"It does," said Jacquie, "but not when I'm eating. It's the sort of information I prefer to acquire between meals."

There were several things that struck one immediately about the elephant seals, once one had got over incredulity at their mere size. The first thing was, of course, their ridiculous hindquarters. The fur seal (which is really a sea lion) has the hind limbs well developed as legs, so that when they move they hoist themselves up on to all four legs and walk as a dog or a cat would. But in the elephant seal, which is a true seal, the hind limbs are minute and pretty useless, with stupid flippers that make it look as though the animal has had a couple of empty gloves attached to its rear end. When the creature moves all the propulsion comes from the front flippers, and the humping of the massive back, a slow, ungainly method of movement that was painful to watch.

There was quite a colour variation[221] among the herd. The old bull was a rich, deep slate-grey, tastefully speckled here and there with green, where some marine alga[222] was apparently growing on his tough hide. The young bulls and the cows were a much paler grey. The babies were not bald and leathery like their parents, but each was wearing a fine fur coat of moon-white hair, close and tight as plush. The adults had so many folds and wrinkles all over them that they looked rather as if they were in need of a square meal to fill out the creases, as it were, whereas the babies were so rotund and glossy they looked as though they all had just been blown up with bicycle pumps, and would, if they were not careful, take to the air.[223]

From the point of view of filming the elephant seal colony was, to say the least, difficult. All they wanted to do was sleep. The only real movement they made was to open and close their huge nostrils as they breathed, and occasionally one would shovel some shingle on to its back; but as there was no preliminary warning to this action it took me some time to get it on film. Sometimes one of them would hump itself forward, eyes tightly shut, burrowing its great nose through the shingle like a bulldozer. Even when I had got all these actions on film it still did not seem to me that the elephant seals were showing themselves to advantage;[224] they lacked action, which, after all, is one of the things necessary for a moving picture. One of the extraordinary things about these seals is the flexibility of the backbone, In spite of their bulk and vast quantities of blubber, they can bend themselves backwards, like a hoop, until the head touches the uplifted tail. How to get them to demonstrate this for me to film, when they were all lying about displaying the animation of a group of opium smokers,[225] was somewhat of a puzzle. At last, however, we were successful with the old bull, by the simple expedient of throwing handfuls of fine gravel on to his tail. The first handful made him stir slightly and sigh deeply, without opening his eyes. The second handful made him open his eyes and stare at us in mild surprise. With the third handful he raised his head, drew back his snout so that it wrinkled like a concertina,[226] opened his mouth and uttered a hissing roar, and then fell back on to the shingle as if exhausted by this effort and went back to sleep again.

Eventually, however, our bombardment got on his nerves. It did not, of course, hurt him, but a constant rain of shingle on your rear-end when you are trying to get to sleep can be extremely irritating. He suddenly became very wide awake and reared up so that he was like the letter J with his head high in the air, his mouth opened wide uttering the loud hissing roar, an oddly reptilian sound for such a monstrous mammal to make. Four times he reared up like this, and then, seeing that the display was having no detrimental effect on our morale,[227] he did what all seals do in moments of crisis: he burst into tears. Great, black tears oozed out of his eyes and trickled forlornly down his cheeks. He lowered himself full length on to the shingle, and proceeded to move backwards towards the sea, like a gargantuan[228] caterpillar, humping his body up with tremendous effort, the fat along his back rippling into waves as he moved. At last, with a final plaintive roar and another flood of tears, he backed into the water, and an incoming wave broke in a garland of white foam around his shoulders. The rest of the herd became alarmed at their lord and master's disappearance, and they all raised their heads and started to look at us uneasily. Then one of the babies panicked, and hunched its way down to the sea, tears streaming down its white face. This was the final straw,[229] and within a minute the whole herd was rushing seawards, looking like a flock of huge maggots[230] in pursuit of a cheese.

Sadly we packed up our equipment and started up the cliff, sadly because we had just completed our last task, and this meant that we must leave the peninsula with its wonderful animal life, and head back to Buenos Aires and the next stage of the expedition. As we made our way along the twilit[231] cliff path we saw the old bull elephant seal for the last time. His head appeared out of a wave, his dark eyes surveyed us puzzledly. He snorted, a reverberating noise that echoed along the cliffs and made his nose vibrate. Then, still watching us sadly, he sank slowly beneath the icy waters and disappeared.