“SEA COWS,” WALRUSES ON PEI?
While studying the map of the coast off of Fernwood, southwest of Bedeque, between Salutation Cove and Seven Mile Bay, I noticed a strange name: Seacow Head. I had seen this name for a pond near Tignish that we had explored years earlier. I had weird visions of what a seacow would be like. Was this some sort of mythological creature, or was this a joke that stuck in the annals of the Island? A little research answered my questions. Seacow is just another name for walrus. It is easy to conclude that if a land mass were named for the “seacow,” then there had to have been walruses at one time on PEI. And there were.
The walrus has always captured our imaginations. They are huge mammals that grow to ten to twelve feet in length and weigh as much as a ton. Much like the sea lions of the coast of California that attract so many on-lookers, the walruses would sun bathe and snuggle their bodies against each other for comfort and security. They are social animals. Their 14-inch tusks, which really are long teeth, have long captured the covetous attention of humans. Their skin is a thick hide that covers a thick layer of blubber that in turn, protects the walrus from the cold. The hide is very tough and hairless. It is still used today for the sharpening of knives, as I saw at a knife factory in Pictou, Nova Scotia. These famous knife makers informed us that the walrus hide could only be obtained today through a government permit as it is an endangered species. The walrus population of the past was astounding. They inhabited much of the Maritimes in the hundreds of thousands. The record of the slaughter of the walrus is discouraging, if not horrifying. The Europeans prized the walrus for its ivory tusks as much as they hunted the African elephants. These tusks became known as “white gold,” for they were carved by artisans to provide the wealthy with all sorts of products. The hide of the Walrus became a major resource for leather products that needed strength and durability, such as harnesses and the drive belts of the water-driven mills. In addition, walrus blubber, when boiled, provided oil that was used in the making of soap and other products. Whale blubber and walrus blubber enjoyed profitable markets on the Island and in Europe.
The walruses were seriously hunted by the Portuguese as early as 1521. The killing of the seacows usually occurred on the coasts where the animals could not escape to the water. The slaughter of the walruses was enormous, so much so that the early government of the St. John colony attempted to curtail the annihilation by passing legislation that enacted fines to save the walruses as early as the 1760’s. The hopes of controlling the mass killing were not realized, for by the end of the 18th century, the walrus population in the Maritimes and on PEI, in particular, had all but vanished. Such a sorrowful record of human greed and destruction at the hands of a once bountiful and formidable sea creature. Today, seals populate the shores of the Island, but how I would love to spot a walrus luxuriating on a coastal rock. Maybe someday.
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