Dead ahead and towering above the low-lying mists of the morning were dark and rocky headlands. As our stubby ship, the Orca, bore down upon the island from the north, these grim promontories took on the tortured shapes and the primordial coloring of extinct volcanoes. The closer our vessel approached to the dramatic coastline the more weird the changing profile of the place became.
Those of us who had never visited Guadalupe Island before were utterly unprepared for the wild scenes revealed by the lifting haze. We had been so intrigued by accounts of the rediscovery of the Townsend fur seal, a creature declared to be extinct on several occasions, by the astonishing comeback of the elephant seals at this island haven and by the promise of other unusual animals of the coast and the deep that we had formed no mental picture of the island itself. But here in the early sunlight was a grotesque volcanic mass rivaling the finest islands of fiction. The Nautilus might have been harbored here, or Ben Gunn have roamed those deep ravines. It was hard to keep in mind that we had sailed only 220 miles southwest from San Diego and that the coast of Baja California was only 140 miles to the east.
The Orca, a 105-foot motor vessel, was once a Coast Guard icebreaker. Now she functions as part of the scientific fleet of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, a branch of the University of California at La Jolla, and aboard, under the leadership of Professor Carl L. Hubbs, the eminent biologist, were scientists from the Scripps Institution and the San Diego Museum of Natural History bent on a natural history survey of this Mexican island.
Throughout most of its meager history man had given Guadalupe Island a dirty deal. Early in the last century Russian sealers brought Aleut Indians from Alaska to take the fur seals in hundreds of thousands. Names of ships and dates scratched on boulders indicate that the crews of Yankee ships from New England also shared in the slaughter. Volcanic rocks worn smooth by the sliding bodies of generations of fur seals give evidence to the numbers that once were there. The massive elephant seals were killed in like numbers for their blubber.
Whaling vessels put goats ashore more than a century ago, so they would increase and provide fresh meat should the ships return. The descendants of those goats and of others planted there later have ravaged the native vegetation to the point where some plants are now extinct.
As the Orca eased to an anchorage in a cove near the north end of the island, a chorus of sound that is hard to describe came across the smooth expanse of water. Sometimes it seemed like distant carpenters at work, and at others it sounded like a great pot boiling and bubbling.
It came from the shore, and through the glasses we determined that the dark masses along one stretch of beach were not boulders but hundreds of elephant seals lolling on sand and making the curious noises of their kind. On the slope behind them were the deserted barracks where a Mexican garrison had been quartered during World War II. At present a handful of Mexican marines maintain a weather station at the southern end of the island. They and their families, 38 persons in all, are the only inhabitants of the island, which is 22 miles long and between three and seven miles wide.
No sooner had the anchor dropped into the blue water than small boats were put over the side to ferry the scientists, divers and technicians to their selected tasks. This was the beginning of a week during which the island and its environs were subjected to study from the heights to the depths.
Eager to confront the elephant seals, Richard Meek, the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED photographer, and I elected to be put ashore at one of their beaches. With us went Dr. Reid V. Moran, the expedition's tireless botanist, who was bent on a trip high into the interior to collect specimens. Unloading Dr. Moran's gear and a large bottle of drinking water lest a sudden storm keep us marooned for a time, we watched the botanist start up a narrow canyon.
Wild goats grazed on the nearby slopes, and we could spot more in the distant highlands which rise to almost 4,500 feet. Some of the goats were mottled brown and black, some were white, others all black. There were big billies with long, curling horns and nannies followed by light-footed kids. Along the shore were bleached goat skeletons and skulls. The wild goat population of the island has been estimated at various times at 8,000 to 30,000. In periods of rainfall they increase rapidly, but when drought comes they die by thousands. At times there have been attempts to harvest the goats, but such ventures have not endured.