Discovered by the British sealer James Weddell (1787-1834) on his voyage to the south in 1822, these seals were used to supply fresh meat for many of the Antarctic Expeditions. Unlike fur seals with their prized skins, Weddell seals with their thinner mottled fur were of little commercial value.
In 1822, Weddell voyaged south to the sealing grounds of the South Orkney Islands. Inspired by Bransfield and Smith’s reports of abundant seals in the region, Weddell had already led two profitable trips to the polar waters in his small ship the Jane. Determined that he could make his fortune there, Weddell purchased an even smaller ship the Beaufoy and headed polewards. Arriving in the South Orkneys, he was disappointed to discover the few seals that were there were not the familiar, valuable fur seal. Weddell collected the skulls and skins of these new seals and they were later identified as a new species and named in his honour.
Desperate to find more seals and the land on which they might live, Weddell pushed south, carefully recording all the wildlife that he saw along the way. Encountering unusually calm seas and mild weather, his route was remarkably free of ice. Traveling as far as his supplies would allow him, he reached a latitude of 74˚15′S – the first to travel so far south. A few ice bergs were seen but more significantly there was no sign of land leading Weddell to suggest that there was most probably open water all the way to the South Pole. Realising that such an idea would be controversial, Weddell had his seamen swear to the accuracy of the log before naval officers.
With the polar winter starting to close in and aware of having limited resources the British captain decided to return north. The colours were raised, a cannon fired and the men given an additional allowance of grog. After naming the area the Sea of George the Fourth, Weddell set sail once more for the sealing fields of South Georgia and the Falkland Islands before returning home.
Weddell had been very lucky to have such an easy voyage. Indeed many later explorers to the area were far less fortunate, finding the area choked with ice, and questioned the veracity of his account.
Currently held by the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
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