Gale-force winds from the Bering Sea’s first fall storm scoured St. PaulIsland in Alaska’s Pribilofs, a stunning archipelago of ancient volcanoes and sweeping tundra 310 miles from the mainland. But amid the thundering ten-foot waves and shattering spray, hundreds of northern fur seals played with nimble abandon. Noses aloft, flippers up, they bobbed in the swells, as buoyant and nonchalant as birds on a thermal. They jostled, squirmed, slammed into each other. Individual seals skimmed down breaking waves like sleek brown torpedoes. Collapsing rollers revealed glistening brown animals, some of them females returning to the island to nurse after foraging 150 miles out to sea.
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Onshore, the half mile of beach was alive with seals. Youngsters tossed strands of kelp and wrestled; cows lounged with bellies exposed, nursing their pups; bulls galumphed into grassy nooks and sprawled out to snooze. A ripe fishy odor saturated the cold wind, and whickering moans, grunts and bawls rose above the ocean’s roar.
Vostochni Rookery, birthplace of 18,872 pups in 2004, home to a rowdy and tireless herd, was simply teeming, the largest concentration of northern fur seals in the United States. And yet, to a practiced eye, something was wrong.
Thousands of animals were missing.
Dustin Jones, the 24-year-old son of a sea lion hunter and part of a new generation of young Aleuts looking after the island for his tribe, stood bareheaded in the October chill and scanned Vostochni Rookery with binoculars and a spotting scope. The scene made him shake his head in disbelief. Grass was now sprouting in places pounded to hardpan by seals only a year or two earlier. Boulders once polished by the bodies of nursing females were gathering moss. Where 600-pound bulls and their harems had jammed the beach, hummocks grew brushy and thick.
Jones, who was raised on St. Paul and has a stocky build and wears an earring, serves as the Tanalix Amgignax (Island Sentinel), a sort of ecosystem scout for the village’s tribal government— patrolling beaches, watching animals, recording what he sees.
Jones took his first sea lion at age 12 with his father and spent countless weekends afoot with his grandfather, the island’s magistrate and a popular tourist guide. To him, the scene at the rookery confirmed what his grandfather had been warning the local government about all those years. “He knew the seals were decreasing,” Jones said.
The latest figures, based on seal counts taken in the animals’ summer habitats on Pribilof beaches, would prove him right. A population that may have once numbered two million to three million in the 19th century—and saw a 20th-century high of 2.1 million in 1951—had slid to about 688,000. “This is just empty,” Jones said, as he tucked away his spotting scope and prepared to drive to another beach. “It’s unbelievable. They’re usually just packed all the way up the grass.”
Constituting at least two-thirds of the world’s entire northern fur seal population, the Pribilof herd dominates an extraordinary collection of wildlife found on the archipelago and in the surrounding Bering Sea—10 species of seals, sea lions and walruses, 17 types of whales and dolphins, millions of nesting seabirds such as kittiwakes, murres and puffins—that makes the islands a sort of northern Galápagos.
A migratory species, the seals spend half the year foraging across the North Pacific Ocean, returning to local rookeries in the spring and summer to breed and raise their pups. “They’ve been leaving here alive, but they haven’t been coming back,” says Aquilina Lestenkof, a lifelong Pribilof resident and co-director of the ecosystem conservation office for the St. PaulIsland tribal government. “Where are they going? What are they doing there? Are they getting enough to eat?”