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Alaska Coast On Assignment

Alaska Coast On Assignment

Alaska Coast
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Photo captions by
Joel K. Bourne,  Jr.

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Legacy of Wildlife and War

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Photograph by Joel Sartore    
By Joel K. Bourne, Jr. Photographs by Susie Post Rust

A gale-swept refuge, imperiled marine mammals, and some of the most lucrative fisheries in the world make for stormy times on the last frontier.

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Jim Estes, a soft-spoken U.S. Geological Survey scientist, has spent most of the past 30 years studying the interwoven relationships between otters, sea urchins, and kelp in the islands, and now and then his ideas rock the boat of ecology. His latest theory: The falling population of sea otters, fur seals, and Steller sea lions has nothing to do with temperature increases, overfishing, or contaminants. Estes thinks they're being eaten.

On a crisp summer morning I joined Estes and fellow researcher Tim Tinker for an otter survey of the waters around Adak Island, a former Cold War spy base so far out in the Pacific it's closer to Petropavlovsk than to Anchorage. Estes handed me an orange flotation suit before we boarded a 17-foot (5-meter) Boston Whaler for the survey. "They're not really survival suits," he said, pulling the heavy coveralls over his lanky frame. "They just help rescuers find your body."

Luckily it was one of those rare bluebird days that occur perhaps once a month in the Aleutians, when the clouds part, the wind dies, and the rugged splendor of nature's handiwork is etched against the pale northern sky. Soon we were nosing along a rocky shore seemingly unchanged since Steller's time. The waterline embraced a labyrinth of habitats transformed by each tide. Rainbow-hued harlequin ducks and mottled brown common eiders flushed from hideouts, while mountains rose 2,000 feet (600 meters) straight up from the jade water. But as we cruised through the watery niches that were classic otter habitat, we spotted few otters. Those we did see were wary: Their wizened faces quickly submerged at our approach. By the end of the day, we'd tallied just 59 adults and 21 pups. Estes shook his head. "A decade ago we would have seen 600."

That evening, over baked halibut and beer, Estes explained his theory. When he visited nearby Amchitka in the early 1990s and discovered that half the island's sea otters had disappeared, he found high levels of DDT and PCBs in those that remained. He suspected the contaminants might be the problem. But on other islands he found populations with low contaminant levels, and they were falling too. He was baffled.

Then one of his colleagues witnessed a startling phenomenon: A killer whale came up and chomped an otter. Though orcas are known predators of much larger sea lions and seals, few had ever seen one take an otter, which would be the orca equivalent of an after-dinner mint. But the next day the researcher observed another attack.

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Decorate your desktop with a Canada goose nestled in a thicket of groundcover on Alaska's Buldir Island.


E-greet a friend with a postcard of Alaska's Steller sea lions in full roar.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
During the return trip from the Alaska expedition in 1741, Captain Vitus Bering and his crew, including Georg Wilhelm Steller, shipwrecked on what is now known as Bering Island, in the Commander Islands. This stretch of Russian islands is considered to be geographically part of the Aleutian chain, and while many of the marine mammals Steller described in his journal were observed during his months stranded on Bering Island, they could also be found in the Alaska region. All but the Steller's sea cow, that is.

Steller was the only scientist to give a full account of a living specimen of this impressive creature, describing its physical characteristics and behavior in great detail. A closer relative to the dugong than to the manatee, the sea cow measured some 30 feet (nine meters) and was believed to weigh around three tons (three metric tons), feeding on kelp beds and algae. Its slow-moving body grazing close to shore and utter lack of fear of humans made it easy prey for the hungry, stranded crewmen and subsequent sailors coming to this area. The Steller's sea cow was considered extinct by 1768—less than 30 years after Steller first described it.

—Karen Font

Did You Know?

Related Links
Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service site presents a brief overview of this vast refuge.

Alaska Fisheries Science Center
Part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this center provides a wealth of knowledge on the conservation and management issues that affect Alaska's marine ecosystems. At the bottom of this site are links to the National Marine Mammal Laboratory and the Alaska Regional office for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium
Researchers from a group of area universities formed a consortium to study the relationships between fisheries and marine mammals, particularly the Steller sea lion, in the North Pacific and eastern Bering Sea areas.

NOAA Fisheries Database
Website for the Fisheries Statistics and Economics Division of NOAA, which has a searchable database of commercial fisheries by species type and year.

Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association, Inc.
Learn about the people, culture, and history of the Aleutian region.


Angliss, R. P., and K. L. Lodge. Alaska Marine Mammal Stock Assessments 2002. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, December 2002. Available online at

Doroff, Angela, and others. "Sea Otter Population Declines in the Aleutian Archipelago," Journal of Mammalogy (February 2003), 55-64.

Golder, F. A. Bering's Voyages, 2 vols. American Geographical Society, 1925.

Kohlhoff, Dean. When the Wind Was a River: Aleut Evacuation in World War II. University of Washington Press, 1995.

National Research Council. Decline of the Steller Sea Lion in Alaska Waters: Untangling Food Webs and Fishing Nets. National Academies Press, 2003.

Nowak, Ronald M. Walker's Mammals of the World (6th edition), 2 vols. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Sease, John L., and C. J. Gudmundson. "Aerial and Land-Based Surveys of Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias jubatus) From the Western Stock in Alaska, June and July 2001 and 2002," NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-131. National Marine Fisheries Service, December 2002.

Stejneger, Leonhard. Georg Wilhelm Steller: The Pioneer of Alaskan Natural History. Harvard University Press, 1936.


NGS Resources
"Sea Otters Take a Dip," National Geographic for Kids! (September 2001), 2.

Bowermaster, Jon.Birthplace of the Winds: Adventuring in Alaska's Islands of Fire and Ice. National Geographic Books, 2000.

Bowermaster, Jon. "Storming the Islands of Fire and Ice," National Geographic Adventure (Winter 1999), 122-34, 153.

Hodgson, Bryan. "Hard Harvest on the Bering Sea," National Geographic (October 1992), 72-103.

Morgan, Lael. "The Aleutians: Alaska's Far-out Islands," National Geographic (September 1983), 336-63.

Johnson, Susan Hackley. "New Day for Alaska's Pribilof Islands," National Geographic (October 1982), 536-52.

Scheffer, Victor B., and Karl W. Kenyon. "The Fur Seal Herd Comes of Age," National Geographic (April 1952), 491-512.


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