Coasting: The Sea Lion and the Lark
Longacre Press, $29.95,
Two centuries ago, sealers and whalers came to New Zealand to hunt marine mammals for their oil and skins. Millions were slaughtered, most of them on the southern coast of the South Island and on the subantarctic islands. The survivors took refuge in the Southern Ocean and on remote islands such as Macquarie and Enderby, the largest of the Auckland Group, 400 kilometres south of Stewart Island.
Today there are tentative signs of a revival. Whales and seals are becoming more common, so too are sea lions. In Coasting, Neville Peat highlights the experiences of a particular sea lion and her apparent campaign to re-colonise the South Island. “Mum” first came ashore to breed at Victory Beach, on the Otago Peninsula, in 1993, and she has returned every second year to give birth to another pup. Of her four progeny, three were female, who may in time return to breed at the beach.
“Mum” originally came from Enderby. Peat describes the social organisation of the sea lions there. Large, aggressive males continually fight to defend their territorial rights. A “beachmaster” wins more than a section of sand; he also gets to breed with the females who have chosen his patch. Meanwhile awkward adolescent males lurk on the water’s edge in the hope of catching an unwary female. The newborn pups are vulnerable: males may crush them and some who go exploring become wedged in rabbit burrows and die of starvation.
Another evocative section of Coasting is an account of a female sea lion’s epic journey from Enderby to Otago’s Taieri rivermouth. Although she is in unfamiliar waters, she swims on, guided by instinct and, perhaps, ancestral memories. This is ambitious writing as Peat describes the experience through the sea lion’s senses but it succeeds because of his understanding of the species and his clear, incisive style.
The sea lion stories, the heart of the book, are contained within another narrative about an enigmatic human, “the Lark”, whom the author met several times while exploring the lower Taieri River. We have all met such a character before – in another guise. Peat’s “Lark”, described on the jacket as “a mysterious drifter”, is an updated version of the good keen man. Not only is he capable, reserved and resourceful; he is now ecologically sensitive as well.
“The Lark” observes nature closely and has a rapport with various species. In Peat’s book The Lark and the Falcon (1992), “the Lark” soared in his hang-glider over Central Otago, with a falcon. In Coasting, he canoes in the surf with a sea lion which, like the falcon, mimics the human’s antics. It is not clear why “the Lark” has been included, except as a link with the earlier book.
There is only one illustration, a small photo on the back cover of “Mum”, on Victory Beach. The lack of photos is curious, for Peat is a photographer and carried cameras with him. On Enderby, he helped scientists recover monitoring equipment glued to the backs of sea lions. The information gathered about their seasonal movements may, in future, help fishermen to avoid catching sea lions in their nets. Peat rued the weight of his cameras as he also carried the anaesthetic gear used to temporarily subdue the monitored sea lions. Later, while cruising on a ketch in Port Ross, Enderby’s anchorage, he came close – too close – to a surfacing whale: “Before I know it, I am performing a hongi with a whale”, and the whale’s breath coated his lens with vapour. Back in Otago, he stalked spoonbill herons on Moturata Island, at the mouth of the Taieri, with a long lens.
If Coasting were set entirely in Otago, the lack of illustrations might not matter. Victory Beach and the Taieri Estuary are easy to visit, but few readers will make it to Enderby Island – a 40-hour journey from Bluff in a small boat across one of the world’s roughest seas, the Southern Ocean. So they are unlikely to ever see the distinctive basalt columns, the rows of sea lions hauled up on the beaches or the red flowers of the island’s southern rata forest.
The decision not to include illustrations suggests publishing constraints or that Coasting was made to fit the format of its predecessor. Nevertheless, Peat makes up for the lack of illustrations by writing about the natural world with flair and passion.
Chris Maclean is the author of Kapiti.