Tale of Fur Seals and an Island Croft A Rare Species Returns to Waters off San Francisco Bay

Article excerpt

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. …