The next portion of the Alaska journey took us to St. Paul Island. St. Paul Island is a small island in the middle of the Bering Sea. Here you can see it north of the Aleutian Islands.
At one point in it's history, St. Paul Island, and the other surrounding islands known as the Pribilofs, were volcanic hills on the southern end of the Bering land bridge. While the volcanoes have not been active for thousands of years, you can see the evidence of them today. Nearly every hill on the island contains a caldera. Here is a photo looking down into one such caldera.
You can also see expansive lava fields in many places, which is where Snowy Owls like to hang out.
There are also dunes made up of coarse, black sand from the volcanic rocks that have weathered and eroded over time. The hills though, are not exceptionally large. For the most part, the island is relatively flat with no trees (other than a couple of stunted Spruce that were planted in front of the NOAH field station). Here are a couple photos of what the scenery looks like.
That Island you can see off in the distance is another one of the pribilofs called Otter Island. Here is a closer photo of it.
If you have ever seen a Sea Otter floating on it's back in the water, then you'll understand how this island got it's name.
In addition to a landscape devoid of anything but short vegetation, the real gem of the island is its magnificent sea cliffs. Here is a distant view of one.
The sea cliffs are one of the main draws for birders, so we'll return to them in a future post.
The weather on St. Paul Island is often time wet and windy. Although our first couple of days on St. Paul were actually pretty nice, if you do visit, you can expect a lot of this.
It's not all bad though. Sometime even a rainbow makes an appearance.
St. Paul Island was not always inhabited though. So what would bring people to such a desolate and harsh landscape? The islands were first discovered by the native Unangan people who had come across the Bering Land Bridge centuries before. The island hosted many marine mammals that were useful both as a source of food and furs. It wasn't long before the Russians also discovered the island though. In short time, they relocated many of the native Unangan to the pribs to hunt Sea Otters for them in slavery. Soon the Sea Otters were extirpated from the pribs, but a technique had been discovered to remove the coarse outer fur from the Northern Fur Seals, so the Unangan were forced to hunt them instead. When the Unites States bought Alaska in 1867, the Unangan didn't fair much better. Nor did the Fur Seals. Eventually it was recognized that the hunting practices were not sustainable and over a long period of time, action was finally taken to help them recover. Recovery has been slow although visitors today might never guess that. There are plenty of seals around to watch and they can be very entertaining!
They can even be fun to watch sleeping.
The pups can be particularly fun as they are often just as curious about you and you are about them.
Some seals even like to do early morning yoga.
And here are a few more photos of Fur Seals, because I like them!
Unfortunately, despite the fact that they are now protected, their interaction with humans is not always so great. Here is one that had part of a fishing net wrapped around it.
Luckily, our guides were able to contact the seal researchers on the island, who presumably, were able to get the netting removed.
Before we leave the seals, here are a couple of videos.
The first is of a male Northern Fur Seal (the largest one) with his harem of females.
And here are a bunch of them playing in the water.
Oh yeah, did I mention that it is often time very windy on St. Paul Island. Here is an attempt to capture a Fur Seal vocalizing from only a few feet away. Not so much.
Northern Fur Seals are not the only mammals you will encounter on St. Paul though. There is also an endemic Shrew, which we never saw, as well as Harbor Seals and Steller Sea Lions, which proved too difficult to photograph. I was able to photograph the blue morph Arctic Fox however.
But the real excitement came from watching Orcas patrolling the seal rookery. While they are difficult to photograph because they rarely come far out of the water and when they do they are rarely out for very long, I was able to get a few shots.
And here is a video as well.
Now, it is important to note that although no longer forced to hunt seals, the Unangan still inhabit St. Paul Island. Here are a few photos of the small town of St. Paul.
|Memorial to those who died when forced off of St. Paul during WWII.|
|Locals playing kickball on a rare sunny day|
|Looking at the town of St. Paul from across the salt lagoon.|
|Another view of St. Paul.|
One of the attractions for visitors is the Russian Orthodox Church. It is really a beautiful building.
Of course, that's just the outside. Here is what it looks like on the inside.
|Notice the traditional Unangan facial tattoos on our tour guide.|
Before we leave our introduction to St. Paul Island, I thought I should point out our four star luxury accommodations, so here it is.
It's also the airport.
Well, now that you've all had a great introduction to St. Paul Island, in my next post I can start discussing what most of my readers really want to hear about - the birding! Stay tuned.