The New England Aquarium recently opened a new Marine Mammal Center, featuring Northern fur seals. The space has a few good viewing areas for getting right up close to these impish little pinnipeds, and the lighting is almost entirely natural (the exhibit is partially outdoors), which makes observation and drawing much easier. The individual sketched above was quite vocal, regularly waddling himself up to the glass and making sure he had an audience gathered before belting out a great belch of a bark. Seal and sea lion voices have always seemed startlingly improbable to me - like a cruise ship's horn from the mouth of a squirrel...
After doing a little post-drawing research on fur seals, I came across the work of late-nineteenth century American artist and naturalist, Henry Wood Elliott. A native of Cleveland, born in 1846, Elliott served a number of years as a staff artist for the Smithsonian, traveling the Northwest coast with survey expeditions; though not professionally trained, he had a deft way of capturing the world around him in his drawings. In 1872 he was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury to conduct a thorough scientific study of the fur seal population, and oversee their harvest, in Alaska's Pribilof Islands - fur seal populations throughout the rest of the world had already been ruthlessly decimated by hunters and the U.S. desired a practical assessment of the remaining resource (read: commercial value) within it's newly acquired territory. Elliott eagerly took the job and immediately fell in love with the landscape and wildlife of Alaska. In addition to exploring the animals at the heart of his study, much of his artwork depicted aboriginal Alaskans engaging in traditional activities - images the general public of the late 1800s had never seen. During this time, Elliott also keenly observed and recorded what would by today's standard's be considered appallingly horrific assaults on nature: Victorian era seal hunts. Below are a handful of Elliott's line drawn illustrations (fur seals, a sea lion hunt, and walruses) from his 1882 book, A Monograph of the Seal-Islands of Alaska. I get a painful, angry lump in my throat looking at Elliott's depictions of those hunts, I can't begin to imagine watching such brutality transpire in person, day, after day, after day.
Elliott's survey of Alaska's fur seals was comprehensive, and enabled him to propose annual hunting quotas that could satisfy demand while preserving the future of the herd; but his management plan was quickly circumvented by greed and the seal population continued to plummet as sealers began killing at sea (unprotected territory) and cruelly preventing the animals from taking refuge on land. As witness to this steady slaughter of hundreds of thousands of seals, Elliott, a compassionate naturalist, became vigorously involved in conservation efforts to halt the hunts altogether and save the species from likely extermination (and the simultaneous destruction of native Alaskan subsistence needs). Finally, in 1905, after years of exhaustive political appeal, Elliott co-authored a landmark document with U.S. Secretary of State, John Hay, that eventually became the very first international treaty dedicated to conserving wildlife; the document would become known as the Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 and would serve as a model for future decades of conservation legislation, including the great Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The painting below ("Aleutians Striking Humpback Whales: off Akootan Island, Bering Sea," undated) is in the collection of the Smithsonian's NMNH.
These days, it isn't rare to see artists become environmentalists - or at least provide profound visual commentary on the future of humanity's increasingly poisonous intersection with nature - but my hat goes off to Elliott for blazing this trail before the concept of conservation even existed. And the fur seals rejoice.