Bears of the Sea

By Chuck Graham   |   December 3, 2020

I’d never been so popular before, as dozens of northern fur seal pups surrounded me while mugging my kayak with demonstrative splashes and harmless bumps into my boat in the dense kelp forests of Adams Cove on the western fringe of San Miguel Island.

It was quite possible that these raucous eared fur seals – descendants of a long-gone terrestrial bear – had never seen a kayaker before, certainly not the pups that were born on the pearly white, windblown sands of Point Bennett. 

Maybe even some of the sub-adult males and females that will eventually spend at least 300 days at sea per year had not witnessed a salt-encrusted kayaker before. Diving deep for pelagic fish in some of the roughest, most frigid waters on the planet would see to that.

On the Brink

The northern fur seal, Callorhinus ursinus, is one of those survivors of an era when all marine mammals were under threat of extinction. For the shaggy fur seal, it was their dense underfur that was highly sought after, and for their long whiskers useful for cleaning pipes. 

That all changed with the coming of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Today, their breeding and pupping grounds are predominantly the Pribilof Islands in Alaska and the Sea of Okhotsk, located between Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula on the east, the Kuril Islands on the southeast, Japan’s island of Hokkaido on the south, the island of Sakhalin along the west, and a stretch of eastern Siberian coast along the west and north.

Fortunately, northern fur seals also prefer South Farallon Island just more than 20 miles west of the San Francisco Bay, and San Miguel Island in the Channel Islands National Park. San Miguel is the most southerly breeding and pupping colony of these stocky pinnipeds.   

Unbridled Enthusiasm

The pups that were swimming around my kayak were forever curious, playful, and super cute. Their ears stuck straight out from their heads, resembling aquatic Yodas, as they bobbed and strained their necks to get their best look at me, before a demonstrative splash and dive below.

Amongst all the playful pups, there were those fur seals that were completely disinterested in me. There were some I paddled past that were fast asleep on the canopy. It seemed all the resting pups struck the same pose at the surface of the water. Their tail flippers stuck straight up to catch the sun like a solar panel to thermoregulate. Their pectoral flippers arched back over their heads, almost in a yoga pose to shield their heads from the glaring sun.

In time, the pups would grow into their long, floppy pectoral flippers that highly resemble those of a deep-sea scuba diver. Awkward on land, northern fur seals are, however, able to climb up steep bluffs and shifting sand dunes. Many of the pups form small nurseries while waiting for the moms to return from their deep dives for food.

Life on the Beach

Whether I was hiking across San Miguel Island or resting in my kayak atop the canopy of kelp, I could hear the pups calling for their moms – bah, bah, bahing. If I had not known better, I thought I would have found sheep huddling on a wind-groomed beach or frolicking in the thundering surf at Point Bennett. 

At Point Bennett, it wasn’t uncommon to see northern fur seals hauled out with California sea lions and northern elephant seals, wallowing on the warm sandy beaches that fingered out toward wave-battered bluffs and guano-covered knobby spires. 

Sometimes the elephant seals “allowed” young California sea lions to haul out on the broad backs of the second largest pinniped in the world. That was not the case with the fur seals. Concealed in the sand dunes overlooking Point Bennett, the northern fur seals proved to be more feisty and spent more time moving around, but when it was time to rest, the pups would locate a patch of sand and form nurseries away from all the drama near the shoreline.

Many of the northern fur seal pups opted for the corner of Adams Cove to wallow and roughhouse in the tidepools at lower tides. One afternoon, I found a young California sea lion pup tucked away from its fore-flippered kind, above the tide pools, thermoregulating between several other fur seal pups. Where was its mother, I wondered?

The mothers of the fur seal pups could be gone for as long as two days on their deep-sea pelagic hunts to satiate themselves. But, once they returned to the beach at Point Bennett, they called out to their anxious pups, searching the beach and sand dunes until they came across the one pup bah, bah, bleeting, thus replying the loudest.

Once mother and pup reunited with nuzzles, nursing ensued. There were lots of chunky, healthy pups on the beach. Unfortunately, there were pups I couldn’t help but wonder about. Nature is unfair at times, but that’s the cycle of life on the beach at Point Bennett.

 

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