The Falkland Islands and South Atlantic
Sealing, old print of sealers clubbing sealsSealing, Beauchene Island, Falkland Islands


Whaling in the South Atlantic and and sub-Antarctic seas was closely interwoven with sealing. Whale oil was often supplemented by elephant seal oil. In the Falklands, Louis de Bougainville, of the French colony at Port Louis was the first recorded to have exported whale oil in 1766. News soon spread in the Northern Hemisphere of the abundance of whale and seal in the South Atlantic and soon American and other nationalites hurried there to harvest them.

When Captain Byron first anchored at the new harbour of Port Egmont, he reported that the beaches were crowded with Fur seal, by 1774 when the British withdrew from their settlement American and French sealers were around the Falklands. In 1776 the French colony at Port Louis was exporting whale oil and 800-900 seals were killed in a day. Exploitation of Fur seals on a large scale began after Captain Cook published his discovery of large amounts of Fur seals on South Georgia's beaches in 1775. Edmund Fanning, a sealer visiting in 1792, saw forty vessels mainly American and British taking seal around the islands and seal up in great numbers on the beaches.

Sealers, particularly American and British, who frequented the Falkands from around 1774 on favoured the far West islands, Weddell, Beaver, New Island, Saunders Island (Port Egmont), and West Point, areas where there were sheltered harbours and they were distanced from the Spanish then at Puerto Soledad (Port Louis) who were hostile to sealers. Whales were most likely to be found in that region. These home ports were bases for the whalers and where large receiving ships lay, sometimes for months taking on board oil from the smaller tender schooners that did the actual whaling. Southern Right Whales, relatively easy to hunt, and also the small black pilot whales were likely to be taken. Sperm whales were rarer as they favoured warmer waters farther north. They were much more dangerous to take and often resulted in loss of life.

After the Spanish departed Puerto Soledad the only people on the Falklands from 1811 to 1820 were the itinerant sealers. The Buenos Aires Government granted Louis Vernet, who followed as Governor in 1828, East Falklands the sole right to the seal fisheries for 20 years. He set up a whaling industry but it was plagued by foreign whalers taking the spoils. The constant defiance of the whalers and sealers of any regulations imposed was bound to have repercussions, Vernet arrested 3 vessels, confiscating their cargos of skins. The master of one was taken to Buenos Aires for trial, Vernet left the islands in November 1831 and never returned. In retaliation Captain Silas Duncan of the American warship 'Lexington' trashed Vernet's Port Soledad settlement, proclaiming the Islands free of all government. Vernet's deputy Brisbane was treated as a pirate, clapped in irons and taken to Montevideo. When Stanley came in to being 1843 - 1845 most of the 100 of the young town's inhabitants were said to be sealers and whalers.

There were two types of sealing, fur seals and sea lions for skins, and elephant seals for oil. Disagreements broke out between sealing masters and settlers, notably about Volunteer Rocks, which the Port Louis settlers considered belonged to them. Sealers had no respect for any law and depredations were extensive. In 1853 Governor Rennie reported that he was powerless to carry out his warnings for he had no force to maintain control, which the sealers and whalers knew very well. The beginning of the American Civil War 1861-1865 stopped the sailing of New England sealers and illicit sealing was never on the same scale again.

Sealers were versatile and when one species was depleted they would harvest another. When Fur seal became scarce on the Falklands attention turned to the Southern Sealions. They provided not only a marketable skin but more importantly, oil. In 1842 Governor Moody reported that 'the hair seals which were formerly so abundant on these islands have decreased considerably in number, in consequence of the wanton destruction at all times of the year when they can be met with; neither old seals nor pups are spared by the sealers'.

Given that the seals were up to breed on the islands and clearly had young, and also the fact that the island's tussac was burned makes it hardly surprising that with no restrictions or protection the lucrative hunting of this seal soon depleted their numbers. James Lovegrove Waldron- Notebook and Diary 1866- 1867 leaves us an insight into the trade and state of Falkland seal stocks in 1866: 'A few years ago seals were very numerous on these islands but being mercilessly killed at all times both young and old, they are becoming very scarce, both fur and hair seal, although it is but justice to say they the young being left always pined away and died. They now have to seek them on the coast of Patagonia and South Georgia.

In 1903 several British Columbian sealing schooners put in for the purpose of exporting their catch. Over 17,000 skins alleged to be pelagic were so exported. A new duty was imposed of 10s per skin on skis imported for the purpose of transhipment or exportation intened to discourage the schooners from visiting.

Wiith the departure of the Canadian sealers, around 1908/ 09 after they found it unviable, the sealions recovered enough to come to the notice of sealers again and in 1928 the Falkland Islands and Dependencies Sealing Company Ltd. was born, backed by the Falklands Government and formed by some Falkland Islanders and Norwegians with South Georgia interests. This enterprise was based at the North West Arm at Albemarle, and boasted a factory with accommodation for the gang of 30 employees who could in one day gather up to 300 sealions and kill them. The venture struggled on for a decade, eventually closing in 1938, with no profit but a loss of 40,000 sealions lives.

In 1950 attempts to harvest seals at Albemarle station began again, sponsored and overseen by the Colonial Development Corporation. This was more closely monitored, only large males were allowed to be taken with hides and meat being utilized as well at the blubber for rendering to oil. Seals, sealions and elephants were gathered by schooner from as far away as George and Barren Islands, Carcass, and Sea Lion island and taken to Albemarle for processing but still, after only two and a half years the project was abandoned and Albemarle closed. There were simply not enough seals.

Sources include: The Falkland Islands- Ian J Strange, James Lovegrove Waldron- Notebook and Diary 1866- 1867, The Falkland Islands- G Moir