Hakai Magazine

Cover image courtesy of Reaktion Books

Book Review: Seal

A Canadian historian looks at the seal’s place in the natural order and in human culture.

Authored by

by Rebecca Foster

Article body copy

“It is hard to imagine a creature more distant from the human species in bodily form, habits, and habitat than the seal,” Victoria Dickenson writes in the introduction to her book Seal, “yet our mutual regard tells of a long, shared history of interaction.”

Seal is the latest in the 80-strong Animal series from Reaktion Books. Like other volumes, this edition gives a brief discussion of the featured animal’s evolutionary biology, followed by an interdisciplinary survey of how it has entered human culture throughout history. Dickenson focuses on the phocids (true seals), whose name comes from the Greek phoke, via the Sanskrit term for “swollen or plump animal”—appropriate given that a seal’s blubber accounts for half its weight. The author describes seals as vocal and charismatic, and reveals that their habits underwater—where they spend 86 percent of their time—are difficult to study.

In a lively exploration of human-seal interactions, Dickenson discusses how seals, easily tamed, have featured in circuses since Roman times. Hoover, a performing seal at the New England Aquarium, even earned a Boston Globe obituary when he died in 1985. Meanwhile, mythology—whether Greek, British, or Inuit—portrayed seals as shapeshifters. In countries such as Scotland and Iceland, this gave rise to erotic tales of selkies, who switch between human and seal form.

There’s another side to human interaction with seals, however. In the final two chapters—the highlight of an occasionally dry book—Dickenson gives a balanced account of the history of hunting seals, from the Mediterranean to the polar regions. From the 15th through the 19th century, coastal dwellers throughout the northern hemisphere relied on seal oil—an alternative to whale blubber—for fuel. Today, flipper pie is still a delicacy in Newfoundland. But the real prize for hunters throughout history has often been sealskin—soft, supple, and waterproof, it has been used for everything from coats to wallets.

Dickenson also discusses the current climate around hunting and conservation. In 1976, Greenpeace famously launched a campaign against the commercial hunting of seals; while the organization still opposes the practice, it recently apologized to indigenous hunters for collateral damage to their culture and economy. When Ellen DeGeneres made a high-profile donation to the Humane Society, which opposes the seal hunt, in 2014, Inuit people protested by posting “sealfies” (photos showing off kills or sealskin fashions) to social media. Dickenson concludes that maintaining respect for indigenous peoples’ traditional practices while addressing animal welfare concerns is an ongoing challenge.

Reaktion specializes in richly illustrated volumes that appeal to academics and amateur enthusiasts alike. Seal is no different; it includes more than 100 photographs and drawings, and the extensive references and bibliography allow keen readers to continue studying.

By Victoria Dickenson
213 pp. Reaktion Books