Elephant seal harem at Macquarie Island
The practise of hunting seals for food and skins by pre-industrial societies has a long history, however, it was not until the eighteenth century that the large scale commercial exploitation of seals commenced. The pelts of fur seals were in demand for clothing, and they were highly valued by European merchants as a relatively easily obtained and profitable cargo. Oil, produced from rendering down the blubber of both fur and elephant seals was more difficult to process and bulkier to transport. From the late 1700s the demands of the industrial revolution increased the market for both seal and whale oil for lighting, lubrication of machinery and some manufacturing processes.
Sealers usually took advantage of the animal's behavioural patterns, as seals tended to congregate in large numbers in restricted areas during their breeding seasons. Fur seals were herded together and kept from escaping to the sea while they were clubbed to death. The animals were skinned immediately and the pelts were salted and usually stored in timber casks. The larger and slower elephant seals were clubbed and lanced before being stripped of their blubber, which was cut into pieces and rendered down in large metal cauldrons known as trypots. The resulting oil was allowed to cool before being run into casks, ready for shipping.
Flinching a yearling, a young sea elephant,
Tristan de Acunha. (Augustus Earl/ National
Library of Australia)
In Australasian waters the sealing industry commenced in Bass Strait in 1798 and rapidly spread to Tasmania and along the southern coasts of the mainland as far as Western Australia. The industry was largely carried out by Sydney based gangs, and the shipment of seal skins and oil to China became the first viable export from the new colony. By 1810 the Bass Strait industry had largely collapsed and the Sydney, and Hobart, sealing vessels were exploring and working further afield towards New Zealand and its southern islands.