Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More than you want to know...about Kodiak's Pennipeds (ie Seals & Sea Lions)

Yes, here I go again: spouting off all the clutter I gather from the Internet and the local lore. Today it is about the birth of Seals and Sea Lions. They are quite similar, so I will just group them together.

And like the blog on slugs, this might be too descriptive for many readers. So beware about reading further.

Most of the real interesting stuff is form the locals who used to hunt those creatures...when it was legal as late as the 1970's. If you get a chance, take a look at Andy Nault's book Staying Alive in Alaska's Wild and Steve Decloux's Two Tales of Old Kodiak. (Sorry, this program won't let me underline book tiles, so I just put them in italics). It'll give you a real insight into the challenges they faced against the weather, running among so many animals....and what went through their minds as they hunted and then prepared their greasy hides.

These guys went hunting for the young seals from May through August along Kodiak's many islands. They'd boat to a place they knew large population of seals came to give birth, such as Ugak island or Tugidak island at the extreme south of Kodiak. There they would find 200, or 500, or up to 10,000 seals on a beach that might be 4 miles wide at low tide but only yards wide at high tide. Can you imagine the stink of so many animals? ...and many giving birth!

The Internet has pictures (like those above) of mother caring for their young or barking at intruders who try to approach their babies. But that is not always the case. Many moms just simply abandon their young and go back out to sea to eat instead of nurturing their babies with their 35% fat-containing milk.

Males take control of a geographic area and fight other males to keep them out of their harem. Any female in their geographic area is "mine". Females are constantly approached by the big males for "special favors". Once they mate, there goes the maternal instincts. And no orphaned seal or lion is taken in by another mom. No way.

Starving babies are too weak to run and, with no mom to fend off attackers, these are easy prey for the hunter. One smooth swing to the head with a short club or a kid's baseball bat and the abandoned seal's slow path to death comes to a quick end.

Even without the human hunter, if mom is not there to take them to the water to cool off, death is on its way. In 60 degree weather, overheating fat makes the skin and fur break open. Eagles attack. Unfortunately my wife made me take out the description of how that happens. Anyway, that is bad for the seals, but food for the eagles and their babies.

In short, over 50% of the young ones never make it to adulthood.

After a few weeks, education begins. Once the babies have gained about 35 pounds, 1 out of 12 moms stay with a group of babies as the rest go hunting for their own food and to bring fish back to their own babies. The "Nanny Mom" start pushing her group towards the water. First it is once per day. Then it is many times per day. Once she starts, she will nudge, and push and even bite the group to get them to move as a herd into the water. They get to be quite qick; and this helps save them. When eagles or men approach, the Nanny Moms get their gang into the water in a hurry. The weak or slow ones don't make it. That is natural selection.

Under public pressure, Seal and Sea Lion hunting was terminated by law. Even natives are limited in that they cannot sell the skin. Yes, natives can sell seal products if made into works of "art", but there is just so little maket for that. So the number of kills is now minimal. In the 1980's rangers reported the total number of surviving seals increased significantly. Since then it has again decreased tremendously.

The old hunters claim it is because we have eliminated a natural force (the hunter)that had been helpful in culling out the slow from procreating their weak genes. Now the killer whales and other forces are culling them out. The hunter were just part of nature. That's their story. And they're sticking to it.

That is perhaps true. But when you kayak by a seal and they stare at you with those huge puppy dog eyes, you just want to take that seal home with you. But not so for Sea Lions. They are big; they scare you by swimming around your kayak and threatening to tumble you over. No way. It is they who want YOU!

PS1: The wife refuses to take any blame for this blog (and made me eliminate the descriptive, scientific information).
PS2: The pics above are off the Internet; I've never been that close to baby young seals and sea lions.
PS3: If you want to re-see a Sea Lion Rookery on a cliff, check out my last year's YouTube video which I took form a boat(and which you might have seen on this blog before):

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