Ocean Harbour, South
Georgia Island, 11/17/08
A vibrating roar rattled around our
aluminum hull. In a second I went from
sleeping soundly to standing wide awake
on the cabin sole, pulling on layers of clothing. The roar came again and continued for
more than a minute, a gargling bellow that
might’ve come from a two-story bullfrog,
or a lion with a bad chest cold. I pulled open the companionway
hatch to reveal the snow- and scree-covered mountains rising
high above us on three sides, dotted with cream-colored reindeer.
Hundreds of elephant seals lay hauled out on the beaches around
the wide harbor, emitting an amazing variety of sounds — bleats,
yaps, and squawks mingled with explosive noises which, in human
society, would be considered exceedingly rude.
The roar sounded again. I peered over the edge of the boat
to see a nose the size of an old Army boot. A bull elephant seal
blinked soulful chocolate eyes, and his gargling roar ended in a
strangled grunt. “What do you think you’re doing?” I asked him.
Leaning his chin against the hull, he bellowed once more, the
sound amplified as it echoed off Hawk’s aluminum side. A dozen
other bulls answered until the whole anchorage resounded.
“You’re going to get into trouble,” I told him. Elephant seals
breed in colonies, where one male, called a harem-master, controls
anywhere from a dozen to several hundred females. After the initial fighting over territories, a strong harem-master can keep most
other males away with his voice. The young seal looking up at
me was still a year or two away from being able to challenge the
harem-masters. By throwing his voice off our hull, though, he’d
convinced the rest of the seals that a new, powerful bull had come
into the harbor. Sooner or later one of the alpha males was going
to respond to the threat. But testosterone had
already won the war with common sense. He
continued to throw his voice against our hull,
delighted with the sound. At one point, Evans
put on “Soul Man,” the soul-music classic by
Sam & Dave. The seal roared right along with
the bass line, and I named him Sam.
Around midday, Sam surfaced about 20
feet from the boat, his breath coming in harsh
gasps. Another bull rose next to the boat,
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” I told him. He leaned his
bloodied nose against our hull and looked so forlorn I took pity
on him. “In another year or two, you’ll be big enough to match
your singing voice,” I promised. “And then you’ll have your share
of ladies.” Sam dove, leaving a trail of crimson blood floating in the
cold, gray water.
Beth Leonard and Evans Starzinger completed a westabout tradewind
circumnavigation aboard Silk, their 37-foot ketch, in 1995, then spent
the last decade on an eastabout circumnavigation of the high latitudes aboard their 47-foot
sloop, Hawk. They’ve written acclaimed technical and adventure books about their cruising,
including Blue Horizons, for which Beth won
the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award in
the literature category. www.bethandevans.com
Hawk at South Georgia: A colony of elephant seals lies hauled out on the beach in front of our 47-foot sailboat, Hawk.