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
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. …