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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

The Northern Fur Seals of the Pribilof Islands

October 19th, 2013 · No Comments

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The Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea were everything they promised to be: cold, wet, windy, and usually foggy or overcast. They also have 450,000 northern fur seals and uncounted millions of birds.

When my friend Marveen and I planned this trip to Alaska, she suggested that I visit the Pribilofs. While she had never been there herself, she was familiar with them from her wide reading. After I did some research, I signed up for a five-day tour that St. Paul Island Tours, a subsidiary of Tanadgusix, the Aleut Alaska Native village corporation that owns more than 95 percent of Saint Paul Island and all or part of its fish processing industry, hotel, cable television, and tourism businesses.

But when Marven and I discussed my planned tour of the Pribilofs while I was staying in her home, we both had considerable regrets. She was concerned that her recommendation might be a bad one. I was specifically worried about the bad weather I was sure I would experience and thought that I had already had such a magnificant trip to Alaska that visiting the Pribilofs could be a letdown. We needn’t have worried. The Pribilofs were a highlight of my nine-week visit to Alaska.

These islands are famous among birders and naturalists, although few other people have ever heard of them. They are one of the three most isolated places I have ever visited. The coast of Siberia is 500 miles west, but the only way I could get there was an 800-mile flight from Anchorage.

Formerly called the Northern Fur Seal Islands, these isolated islands are the breeding grounds of the fur seals, which in the late 18th century fur traders knew had to be somewhere in the ever foggy Bering Sea. After years of searching, a Russian fur trader named Gavriil Pribylov in 1786 and 1787 discovered the breeding colonies on these previously uninhabited islands.

Then, a few Russians and a few hundred Aleut slaves from the Aleutian Islands to the south proceeded to kill as many of the fur seals as they could. When we bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, we especially wanted the big money from the slaughter of the fur seals, which we intensified, so much so that by 1911, when the United States, Russia, Japan, and Canada signed the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, the fur seals had come close to extinction.

The Aleuts were slaves, first of the Russians and then of the Americans. I don’t use the term “slaves” loosely. The Aleuts were truly the “slaves of the harvest” as Barbara Boyle Torrey’s sad but excellent book of that title so fully documents. I bought and read this book on the recommendation of Jason Bourdukofsky, the president of Tanadgusix Corporation, who I got to know. Like most of 700 people who live on the islands today, he has an obviously Russian surname. In fact, almost all of the natives of the island are also members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian influence lives on here, partly I would guess because until recently we didn’t treat them any better than the earlier Russian colonists.

Jason told me that he was a baby when the U.S. government evacuated all of the Aleuts from the Pribilofs and the Aleutian Islands in 1942, giving them just a few minutes to pack one bag for what turned out to be a multiyear exodus from their homes. We all know that at the same time our government did the same thing to people of Japanese ancestry, but I didn’t know that we did that to this American Indian tribe. Jason told me that half of his people died in the internment camp at Funter Bay, including his grandfather.

Jason also told me that he is one of just six native speakers of the Aleut language who remain alive. He is is also the president of the school board, which at his urging now requires some Aleut language and cultural instruction. The city of Saint Paul on Saint Paul Island has the largest Aleut community on Earth. Out of a total population of 532 people, 457 of them are Alaska Natives. About 100 more people, almost all Aleuts, live on the other inhabited Pribilof Island, Saint George.

The City of Saint Paul, Saint Paul Island, the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, and its Russian Orthodox Church on a Rare Sunny Day

The City of Saint Paul, Saint Paul Island, the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, and its Russian Orthodox Church on a Rare Sunny Day

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The northern fur seals are the biggest of the 11 species of seals in the world. The males can weigh up to 650 pounds and are four to six times larger than females, which is probably the greatest size difference of any mammal.

A Meeting of Males

A Meeting of Males

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This One Looks Gentle

This One Looks Gentle

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This One Doesn't -- I Ran

This One Doesn't -- I Ran

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A Little Seal Pup Lost in the Fog Looks for Mama and Finds Only a Big, Uncaring Male

A Little Seal Pup Lost in the Fog Looks for Mama and Finds Only a Big, Uncaring Male

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Because I grew up in Southern California, maybe I overestimate the importance of good weather. The many seals on the Pribilof Islands are there because it’s so bad.

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