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Authors: Farley Mowat

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Sea of Slaughter

BOOK: Sea of Slaughter
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The Why and the Wherefore

The SS
was a
Liberty ship built of slabs of rusty steel welded into a vaguely nautical shape in a wartime yard. In mid-September, 1945, she sailed from Antwerp, laden with souvenirs of the late cataclysm destined for a war museum in Canada. I was nominally in charge of this grim cargo. A veteran at twenty-four, I was on my way home, determined to put the years of anti-life in the war behind me, desperate to find my way back to the solace of a living world where birds still sang; where creatures large and small rustled through the forests; where great ones swam in the silence of the sea.

It was a slow passage over an autumnal ocean. As the only passenger on board, I spent much of my time on the bridge at the invitation of the elderly Master. He was keenly interested in the animals inhabiting the world of waters, and, finding that I shared his pleasure in them, Captain DeWitt devised a game. Posted one on either wing of the bridge, we would peer through binoculars for hours, seeking to identify a whale or porpoise or bird before the other spotted it. Often enough the sharp-eyed old skipper made a fool of his youthful guest.

On our fourth day out of the English Channel he abruptly ordered the helmsman to haul hard a-port, then called to me, “There she blows! Old Cachalot himself!”

I watched, enthralled, as we bore slowly down on a scattering of sperm whales. They were cruising on the surface, signalling their presences along a broad arc of the horizon with watery jets. We held position in their midst for an hour and it was with reluctance that the Captain brought his ship back on her westward course.

A day or two later a pod of blue whales crossed our bows, sleek behemoths that have no equal for size or majesty on the lands or in the seas. Another day we were overtaken and entertained by a school of porpoises doing aquabatics in our bow wave. As we approached the edge of the Grand Banks I was the first to spot a thicket of smoky plumes to the northward; the skipper again altered course to intercept, and we steamed into the company of half-a-hundred bottlenose whales. Far from seeking to avoid us, they altered to collision course and came so close alongside that one big bull misted us with his steamy, fishy breath.

Time slipped quickly by on that passage. Not far from the drowned Virgin Rocks we tallied eleven kinds of seabirds in a single day, estimating their combined numbers at several hundreds of thousands. Entering the Strait of Belle Isle we passed a stately procession of fin whales outward bound; and Captain DeWitt delightedly saluted them with our hoarse steam whistle. Clearing the eastern end of Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, we steamed in fog and dead calm weather through seemingly endless rafts of birds, mostly eider and scoter ducks, interspersed with faery flights of phalaropes, that rose under our bows and skittered away into the mists.

By the time we docked in Montreal, the Captain and I had logged thirty-two kinds of seabirds and ten species of sea mammals, together with such bizarre creatures as swordfish, giant jellyfish, and an enormous basking shark. For me it had been a voyage out of a long darkness... into the light of life.

The eastern seaboard inexorably drew me back to it. In the spring of 1953, my father and I sailed his portly old ketch,
Scotch Bonnet,
down the St. Lawrence River toward the Gulf. Just past Quebec City we had the illusion that winter had returned, for the grassy islets and the broad sweep of cattail marshes below Cap Tourmente were whitened by thousands of snow geese gathering strength for the long flight to their Arctic breeding grounds. Passing Gaspé we sailed close under the towering ledges of Bonaventure Island and were umbrella'd by a living cloud of gannets. We stayed a while with a lobster fisherman at West Point on Prince Edward Island and were astounded to watch him boat more than 300 of the green-shelled creatures from one haul of his traps.

We met many whales on this voyage, too. During the graveyard watch on a black night in mid-Gulf we were visited by a pod of grampuses—so-called killer whales. My father was dozing at the wheel when one of them leapt skyward, close alongside. The concussion when its seven- or eight-ton body smacked into the water was like the crack of doom. I think my father never slept on watch again.

Entering the Atlantic through Canso Strait, we were caught in the tail of a hurricane and blown out to Sable Island where we became the cynosure of the lustrous eyes of scores of curious seals. As
Scotch Bonnet
made her way back to the coast of Nova Scotia, crossed the Gulf of Maine, and sailed on to Long Island Sound we were in almost constant contact with the dwellers of the seas.

Through the subsequent three decades I lived much of my time in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the Atlantic seaboard, my commitment to the region growing with the years. I spent almost two years sailing in grey storm seas with the men of the North Atlantic salvage tugs in order to write about them. Several of my other books have been about this area, including ones on the days of sail, early Norse explorations, the human side of the sealing story, and the way of life of the outport fishing villages.

My wife and I settled in Newfoundland for several years, exploring the coasts and surrounding seas in our small schooner, voyaging to St. Pierre, and visiting Labrador. I spent many days on the fishing grounds in everything from a four-oared dory to a 600-ton stern dragger, watching the glitter and gleam of countless multitudes of fishes being brought aboard—fishes ranging from pencil-sized capelin to barn-door halibut weighing 400 pounds.

In 1967, we sailed our vessel up the great river to Ontario, but I found that the inland could not hold us. So we returned, to make a home on the sandy scimitar of the Magdalen Islands in mid-Gulf. Here I became so familiar with the massive grey seals that they would permit me to sunbathe with them on the same patch of beach. And from here I extended my explorations to Anticosti Island, the Gaspé coast, and the shores of Prince Edward Island. Here, also, I came to know the legions of harp seals that once whelped in countless thousands on the pack ice of the Gulf and off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. I visited the seal nurseries at both locations... and witnessed the red slaughter that ensued when the sealers came amongst them.

In 1975 my wife and I moved to Cape Breton to another home beside the sounding sea. Now, however, the sea was sounding a sombre and warning note. For some years past I had been bothered by the uneasy impression that the once familiar richness and diversity of animate life I had known in the oceanic world and on its landward verges were diminishing. There was a perceptible reduction in the numbers of seals, seabirds, lobsters, whales, porpoises, foxes, otters, salmon, and many other such whose presence I had come to take for granted. For a time I tried to persuade myself that this was a transient and perhaps cyclic phenomenon. But when I consulted my own notes made in these maritimes over a span of three decades, I found grim confirmation for my intimation of unease. During those thirty years the apparent numbers of almost all the larger kinds of animals, and many of the smaller ones, had radically decreased.

Deeply perturbed, I canvassed the memories of fishermen and woodsmen neighbours, some of whom had lived as many as ninety years. Even if their recollections were gilded by the mists of memory and by the age-old duty to tell a good yarn, their accounts convinced me that there had been a mass decline in both the volume and diversity of non-human life, and that it was still going on.

Questing further afield for understanding, I found that the Atlantic seaboard was not alone in suffering an intolerable depletion of animate life. Alarmed naturalists and scientists the world over were reporting an almost universal diminution of non-human life at what many of them suspected was an accelerating rate. The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was said to have remarked that if the current trend continued, there would be few wild creatures “bigger than a breadbox” left alive by the middle of the twenty-first century except those maintained by us for our own selfish purposes.

As the 1980s approached, three questions loomed ever larger in my mind. If the natural life in the eastern seaboard had lost so much ground during a single human generation, how much might it have lost since European men began their conquest of this continent? And, if that loss had been on a scale comparable to what was happening now, what did it portend for the ongoing existence of all life on this planet—human and non-human—since, in the last analysis, life is indivisible? Finally, if animate creation was indeed being done to death by man, what could we do to halt the slaughter before it was too late?

Our understanding of the present and our ability to plan with wisdom for the future rest on possession of sure knowledge of the past. So, in order to find my way toward answers to these questions, I needed a history of natural life on this continent since Western man first put his mark upon it. I made a thorough search for one. I found books on the extinction of individual species, such as the passenger pigeon and the Plains buffalo, and there were works that listed animals for whom extinction threatens. But there was no chronicle of the overall diminution of natural life.

In 1979, I reluctantly found myself undertaking such a history myself. I had barely begun what turned into five years of work before I realized that I would have to accept some limitations. One book (or one lifetime) would not suffice for even a superficial description of the destruction that has taken place throughout North America since the arrival on the scene of Western man (by which I mean the bearers of Western culture, as distinct from the aboriginal inhabitants).

In the main, I restricted my study to the region with which I was most familiar, the northeastern Atlantic seaboard. This is a comparatively small portion of the earth's surface, but it had an incredibly rich natural history, and the destruction of its creature life reflects in miniature the history of the exploitation of such life throughout the entire domain of modern man, a domain that has now come to encompass almost the entire surface of this planet. What happened in my chosen region is happening on every continent and in every ocean.

This region includes the coasts, islands, adjacent hinterlands, and adjoining seas of eastern North America from about mid-Labrador south to the vicinity of Cape Cod, and westward to embrace the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the lower reaches of the St. Lawrence River. It was to this quarter that the first European voyagers—Norsemen from Greenland and Iceland—came during the final decades of the tenth century. They lit the way for others, and, by the middle of the fifteenth century, adventurers from Europe proper were feeling their ways into New World waters. By 1500, Portuguese, English, French, and Basques had probed most of the coasts and were settling into the first stages of the still-ongoing exploitation of the New Founde Lands. So the time frame of this book is from about 1500 until the present.

The human history of this period was, and remains, essentially a history of exploitation. This is, therefore, a central theme; but I have dealt with it from the standpoint of the victims. We human beings have spokesmen enough to argue and justify our cause. The other creatures have pitifully few. If, in making myself their advocate, I appear somewhat misanthropic, I offer no apologies except to say that it is not my business to offer even token exculpation or justification for the biocidal course that modern man has steered... is steering still.

I have restricted the book to mammals, birds, and fishes, with the major emphasis on sea mammals. I give much of the available space to these mainly because if we
change our attitude toward “the other beasts,” the sea mammals seem to have the best chance for recovery and survival in a world where many terrestrial mammals are being physically squeezed out of existence by our destruction of their habitats and by our burgeoning appetites.

This is not a book about animal extinctions. It is about a massive diminution of the entire body corporate of animate creation. Although a number of the chapters tell the stories of animals that have indeed been extirpated, the greater part of the book is concerned with those species that still survive as distinct life forms but have suffered horrendous diminishment. Many have been reduced to little more than relic populations that continue to exist by whatever grace and favour mankind sees fit to extend to them.

Some who read this book in manuscript found the stories it tells so appalling that they wondered why I had committed myself to five years in such a pit of horrors. What did I hope to accomplish? It is true that this book describes a bloody piece of our past—it records what we have accomplished in one special region during 500 years of tenure as the most lethal animal ever to have appeared upon this wasting planet. But perhaps, with luck, this record of our outrageous behaviour in and around the Sea of Slaughter will help us comprehend the consequences of unbridled greed unleashed against animate creation. Perhaps it will help to change our attitudes and modify our future activities so that we do not become the ultimate destroyers of the living world... of which we are a part.

BOOK: Sea of Slaughter
3.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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