National Geographic : 1952 Apr
The Fur Seal Herd Comes of Age Every Year a Million Mighty Swimmers and Half a Million Young Bring Drama to the Lonely Pribilofs BY VICTOR B. SCHEFFER AND KARL W. KENYON Biologists, Fish and Wildlife Service, U. S. Department of the Interior F ROM the crest of Hutchinson Hill, on St. Paul Island in the Pribilofs, we could see spread before us the largest breeding colony of fur seals in existence and, incident ally, the greatest assemblage of wild animals to be seen in such a limited area from any one point in the world. Thousands of dark, moving bodies all but covered the semicircular mile of seal breeding beach bordering Northeast Point. They num bered at least 100,000, though the view en compassed only two of 21 named breeding grounds, or rookeries. In the light of our population studies to date, we estimate that the Pribilof herd numbers about one and a half million seals. Its size now remains generally constant, and each year scientifically harvested furs yield the United States Government more than one eighth the sum paid for all Alaska. Saved by International Action As we looked out over the vast swarm of seals and listened to the chorus of bellowing and bleating carried aloft on the fresh sea breeze, we found it difficult to believe that forty years ago their ancestors wavered at the brink of extermination. In this magazine in 1911 the United States Deputy Commissioner of Fisheries announced the end of an old order and the beginning of a new.* No longer would the sealing schooners of the North Pacific nations be permitted to sail on their wasteful voyages of slaughter. No longer would men kill seals indiscrimi nately on the open sea, where many animals that they shot were never recovered. The days of which Jack London wrote in The Sea-Wolf were ended. Large-scale pelagic sealing, which had reduced the seal herd from millions to fewer than 150,000, was a thing of the past. A new era in the wise use of a great natural resource had begun. The immense gathering of seals we now be held was a living monument to the foresight of the top-hatted envoys of Japan, Russia, Great Britain (representing Canada), and the United States, who, on July 7, 1911, gathered in Washington to sign the treaty that gave the remnant of the Pribilof seal herd a new lease on life. Perhaps to Rudyard Kipling's charming story The White Seal, in The Jungle Book, and to David Starr Jordan's Matka may be attributed a good share of the public senti- ment that gave impetus to this decisive move. At first glance, the animals spread before us appeared to be in wild confusion. Big 600 pound bulls rushed about, bellowing and fight ing. Their smaller mates, weighing only 60 to 100 pounds, seemed to be moving aimlessly, and little black pups were crawling every where (page 500). Bulls Hold Harems by Force Yet, when we limited our field of observa tion to a small area, a fundamental pattern emerged. Each bull held sway over a small patch of ground. He allowed no other bull to trespass on his chosen territory, and any cow that crossed the boundary became part of his harem, his to have and to hold whether she liked it or not. Here she must remain, unless stolen by a neighboring bull, until her pup was born and until she was bred anew. The fur seals of the North Pacific are known to science as Callorhinusursinus, which, trans lated freely, means "bearlike with beautiful snout." They are distant relatives of the dog, cat, and bear, and close kin of the California sea lion, familiar to most of us as the trained seal of the circus. Seals are warm-blooded, with lungs and milk glands. They breed in summer on the islands of Pribilof (United States); Medny and Bering, of Russia's Commander Islands (Komandorskie Ostrova), and Robben (Tiu leni). Robben Island, in the Sea of Okhotsk and less than half a mile long, was controlled by Japan from 1905 to 1945, when Soviet Russia recovered it (map, page 496). Seals from all the islands mingle to some extent during their winter travels at sea, but, through some sixth sense not yet understood by man, they sort themselves into clans and return to the islands of their birth for the summer breeding season. Before the massive snowdrifts have melted along the basaltic beaches and hillsides in early June, the first fat and belligerent bulls appear on the Pribilof shores to proclaim themselves "beachmasters." Each establishes himself on a small station about twenty to forty feet in diameter (page 499). By mid-June, when the cows begin to arrive, the breeding-ground pattern is well estab * See "Making the Fur Seal Abundant," by Hugh M. Smith, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, Decem ber, 1911.