Tale of Fur Seals and an Island Croft

A rare species returns to waters off San Francisco Bay

Peter Pyle was recently searching for a transmitter that had fallen off a seal when he came upon a sight that left even this veteran biologist breathless.

"I had to flush a few sea lions into the water and in among them, in a hidden valley, there were some northern fur seals," Mr. Pyle recounts. "A male stopped and made an odd clicking noise - right behind it was a newborn pup."

The discovery marked the first recorded birth of a fur seal on the Farallon Islands - 30 miles west of San Francisco Bay - since 1817, when they were hunted to extinction by American and Russian sealers. The pup, along with a pod of eight juvenile and adult seals, is evidence that the fur seal, kin of the sea lion and a protected species, is making a comeback here.

"It was really exciting," exclaims Pyle, who has been studying the wildlife on these islands since 1980. The fur seals once teemed along the Pacific coast, but they now breed in only two other places - on the Pribilof Islands off Alaska in the Bering Sea and in a colony on San Miguel Island in southern California.

The biological milestone underscores the importance of this island chain. Despite the desolate landscape - granite crags and hard earth covered with patchy weeds, these islands are a fecund concentration of wildlife unmatched on the western coast of the US.

About a quarter-million seabirds come here every year to hatch their young, making it the largest breeding colony of sea birds in North America south of Alaska. Six different types of seals can be found here. The waters around the islands are considered the best place in the world to see and study the much feared, and little understood, great white shark. Blue and humpback whales migrate in the hundreds past the islands, while gray whales frolic year-round a few hundred yards from shore. In spring and fall, several hundred types of migratory land birds, many of them rarely seen, off-course Siberian and eastern species, stop here.

"It's like living on the Discovery Channel," says one volunteer carrying out a migratory bird count for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which maintains a permanent scientific field station here.

The biological richness of the Farallons is due to its location at the boundary where the cold waters of the oxygen-rich Alaska current meet an upwelling from the depths stirred by northwest winds. "You end up with this rich resource of zooplankton and fish," explains Pyle, food for the seabirds, whales, and seals, the latter in turn serving as lunch for the sharks.

Unfortunately for the animals, Boston merchants discovered this treasure trove in 1807. From the late 18th century, the Yankee entrepreneurs made fortunes collecting seal skins on the northwest coast, taking them to China, where they traded them for porcelain, silk, and other goods. With the help of Russians who provided Aleut hunters from Alaska, the merchants wiped out the Farallon seal colony in a few years, killing some 150,000.

The pillage continued over the century. Elephant seals, prized for their blubber and meat, were wiped out. The eggs of nesting seabirds were gathered to feed the growing city of San Francisco, reducing a colony of common murres from 400,000 to about 6,000 birds.

Finally President Theodore Roosevelt established the Farallon National Wildlife Refuge in 1909. The refuge is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife service, which strictly limits access. Originally it included only the smaller islets in the north and middle part of the chain. But it was expanded in 1969 to the larger Southeast Farallon Island.

The protection provided by the refuge has produced some dramatic results. The murre population has bounced back to 60,000 birds, and this island is home to the largest breeding colony of Western gulls in existence. Unfortunately the gulls also prey upon two other protected birds, including the 50,000 Cassin's auklets that nest in underground burrows on the islands.

The mammals have also made a comeback. Elephant seals, which started breeding again in 1972, now are coming ashore to breed. At their peak, some 800 seals will crowd the coves and flat terraces, piled atop each other in snorting brown mounds.

The arrival of the seals at this time of year means almost daily shark attacks. The scientists man the lighthouse to watch for the telltale eruption of red in the water. As soon as one is sighted, they head out in small boats to film it. This is the only place where sharks can be studied feeding naturally, rather than being drawn with bait.

Fog can often shroud the island, cutting it off for weeks. The small team of scientists is isolated for weeks at a time, though fairly comfortably housed in a lodging originally built for the lighthouse crew.

"You get into it," says Point Reyes biologist Grant Ballard. "It gets harder to leave. You realize you have to go back to deal with driving, with money, and with lots of people."

For entertainment, "there's a TV," says Mr. Ballard, "but mostly we watch our shark videos on it."

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