Wild Things

By Beth A. Leonard

Few things beat sailing around the world for "in your face" wildlife, and we've rarely gone more than a few days without an encounter. In the course of two circumnavigations, my husband Evans and I have almost run over a sleeping sperm whale, helped researchers tag an elephant seal, been attacked by a mad Australian possum, and watched wandering albatrosses soar over Southern Ocean waves. Here are a few of our favorite moments…

December 1, 2001, Puerto Madryn, Peninsula Valdés, Argentina

A gale-force wind whined in the rigging as our 47-foot aluminum sloop fetched up hard on her anchor snubber. Puerto Madryn is the only harbor for several hundred miles, and we'd arrived just ahead of a low-pressure system the day before. Preparing for colder weather, I carried a heavy wool blanket up the companionway and leaned over the stern, ready to shake it out, when something large and brown roared up at me from the sugar-scoop transom. I jerked back, paddle-wheeling to keep from toppling into the water. Two sea lions, teenage males the size of large dogs, lay on the scoop. We eyed each other, as one of them raised his head and gave a low, rumbling growl, then dropped his sleepy head back down.

Harem-Master: A battle-scarred elephant seal responds to the roar of a challenger.

An hour later, I came out to find another visitor, this one sitting on our cockpit seat gazing at me from behind the wheel! Whenever Evans or I went outside for the rest of the day, we were subjected to a nasty growl and a show of teeth before we were allowed to proceed. That night we kept the hatch boards in place so our guests didn't make themselves any more at home. The next morning, we heard three splashes and then they were gone.

March 28, 2002, Bahia Tic Toc, Golfo Corcovado, Chile

A dozen Peale's dolphins coursed along in our bow wave, weaving back and forth, then porpoising out of the water. When we entered a sheltered pool in the midst of a group of small islands, they raced off ahead. Soon they were leaping high in the air, just off the shore. The dolphins had led the way and were now showing us exactly where to drop our anchor.

While the dolphins milled around the boat, we anchored in the cove. Evans jumped into the dinghy, took a line to shore, and tied it securely to a tree. On his way back to the boat, the pod of dolphins intercepted him. He started doing doughnuts, turning in tight circles, and the dolphins, jumping and splashing, kept right up with him. They erupted from the water right at the center of his tight circles and fell back almost inside the dinghy, sending a sheet of whitewater cascading over him as they landed. Evans picked me up, and the dolphins porpoised along in our bow wave on either side of the dinghy. I leaned over the bow, reached out my hand, and one of them surfaced right under it, leaving an impression of soft wet leather that I still feel when I think of that moment.

April 23, 2007, 50 miles off the Pacific Coast of Honduras

We'd been making our way down the coast of Honduras, when we noticed six small orange and red polypropylene lines trailing out from under the boat. This was the third time we'd gotten tangled in what seemed to be endless polypropylene fishing lines. The lines are supposed to be marked by flags and guarded, but they had either been unmarked or drifted free. Evans slowed and turned Hawk around. I sawed at the lines with a knife, trying to free them from the keel. Something red floated on the surface amidst a jumble of flotsam 50 feet away. I tugged on the lines, the float moved, and a mottled brown head appeared.

My stomach ached as I realized the red jerry-can float was attached to a live hawksbill turtle by a chain around its flipper! The chain and float were no accident. Someone had caught this endangered turtle and marked it for later retrieval, and it had become entangled in the floating lines. As we got closer, we were able to cut the fishing gear away, leaving two lines attached to the turtle.

Evans used the lines to draw the panicked turtle closer as we hobbyhorsed in the swell. If we couldn't free him, he stood no chance of surviving. I reached down as close to the chain as I could and took a swipe at the lines holding the buoy to the turtle. I sawed through most of them, but also cut the line Evans was holding. The turtle went into action, swimming away quickly, still attached to the buoy.

Hawk at South Georgia: A colony of elephant seals lies hauled out on the beach in front of our 47-foot sailboat, Hawk.

I kept my eye on the buoy, as we cut the last lines caught around the boat, hoping we might be able to try again, knowing we'd never be able to catch it. As the polypropylene web drifted away, we motored to the red jerry can, and were thrilled to find no turtle; he'd freed his flipper from the chain. A hundred yards from where we'd cut him free, I caught a glimpse of a green-brown shell — our turtle, on his way to a second chance.

March 8, 2007, Lopes Mateos, West Coast of Baja, Mexico

Less than 10 feet from where I sat in the motorboat, a gray whale swam alongside her calf. As I snapped pictures, the boat lurched beneath me. José Luis, the skipper of our little adventure, smiled and shouted, "Going up!" as the boat rose out of the water about a foot and hung there. Peering over the gunwale, I saw 30 feet of barnacle-encrusted gray whale beneath us. José Luis called, "Going down!" and the whale submerged, leaving my heart pounding. "El Bañador!" he exclaimed. "We call her 'the bather' because she likes to bathe people in the boats." He stood up on the side of the boat and started chanting, "El Bañador, El Bañador, El Bañador…"

Buddha Face: Sam the elephant seal.

On the west side of the Baja peninsula in Mexico, a network of interlocking lagoons carved out of the sandy coast serve as the winter home and birthing grounds for the Pacific population of gray whales. The pregnant cows give birth in shallow water where sharks and killer whales have difficulty maneuvering. The lagoons stretch 100 miles along the coast, and the grays could elude boats if they wanted. Instead they seek them out, often coming close enough to be petted. Occasionally, the cows bring their babies face to face with these odd multi-headed creatures that never dive below the surface.

As the sun started dropping down, a whale came alongside, and I reached over to feel the slippery skin and sandpapery barnacles under my fingertips before she dove. When the canted tail rose from the water and hung there for a second, José Luis shouted, "El Bañador!" Just then the tail swung sideways, throwing a frothing wave over him and leaving everyone else in the boat dry. With water pouring down his face and dripping from his clothes, he broke into a wide smile. "See? She still loves me!"

November 17, 2008, Ocean Harbour, South Georgia Island

A vibrating roar rattled around our aluminum hull. In a second I went from sleeping soundly to standing wide awake on the cabin sole, pulling on layers of clothing. The roar came again and continued for more than a minute, a gargling bellow that might've come from a two-story bullfrog, or a lion with a bad chest cold. I pulled open the companionway hatch to reveal the snow- and scree-covered mountains rising high above us on three sides, dotted with cream-colored reindeer. Hundreds of elephant seals lay hauled out on the beaches around the wide harbor, emitting an amazing variety of sounds — bleats, yaps, and squawks mingled with explosive noises which, in human society, would be considered exceedingly rude.

The roar sounded again. I peered over the edge of the boat to see a nose the size of an old Army boot. A bull elephant seal blinked soulful chocolate eyes, and his gargling roar ended in a strangled grunt. "What do you think you're doing?" I asked him. Leaning his chin against the hull, he bellowed once more, the sound amplified as it echoed off Hawk's aluminum side. A dozen other bulls answered until the whole anchorage resounded.

"You're going to get into trouble," I told him. Elephant seals breed in colonies, where one male, called a harem-master, controls anywhere from a dozen to several hundred females. After the initial fighting over territories, a strong harem-master can keep most other males away with his voice. The young seal looking up at me was still a year or two away from being able to challenge the harem-masters. By throwing his voice off our hull, though, he'd convinced the rest of the seals that a new, powerful bull had come into the harbor. Sooner or later one of the alpha males was going to respond to the threat.

But testosterone had already won the war with common sense. He continued to throw his voice against our hull, delighted with the sound. At one point, Evans put on "Soul Man," the soul-music classic by Sam & Dave. The seal roared right along with the bass line, and I named him Sam.

Around midday, Sam surfaced about 20 feet from the boat, his breath coming in harsh gasps. Another bull rose next to the boat, almost below my feet, a harem-master even larger than Sam, covered with bloody cuts from recent fights. Sam rolled his eyes until the pinks showed and dove as the harem-master went for him in a swirl of whitewater. I thought that would be the last I'd see of Sam, but late in the afternoon I heard the now familiar snuffling around the hull. I went on deck again to find Sam gazing up at me. Blood dripped from his chin and neck, and trickled out of his mouth.

"Don't say I didn't warn you," I told him. He leaned his bloodied nose against our hull and looked so forlorn I took pity on him. "In another year or two, you'll be big enough to match your singing voice," I promised. "And then you'll have your share of ladies." Sam dove, leaving a trail of crimson blood floating in the cold, gray water.

Beth Leonard and Evans Starzinger completed a westabout tradewind circumnavigation aboard Silk, their 37-foot ketch, in 1995, then spent the last decade on an eastabout circumnavigation of the high latitudes aboard their 47-foot sloop, Hawk. They've written acclaimed technical and adventure books about their cruising, including Blue Horizons, for which Beth won the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award in the literature category. www.bethandevans.com