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EARTHWATCH

A Miracle of Nature a Short Voyage Away : * Sea lions and elephant seals, once hunted to brink of extinction, now thrive on San Miguel Island breeding ground.

June 16, 1994|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Are you willing to trek 17 miles round trip over a desert island just to see a miracle of nature? Here's an incentive: There's a huge cast of pinnipeds involved.

No, they're not L. Frank Baum creations, but sea lions and elephant seals--about 50,000 of them, the largest aggregation anywhere in the world. And they were rescued from near extinction, it turns out, right off our local shores, during our lifetime. Had I tried to find them during my Boy Scout days, there would only have been a few hundred alive.

Though you can nearly see the island domain of these large dramatic beasts from the Ventura Pier, you can't go watch them "haul out and pup," as the experts term it, unless you make arrangements with rangers from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Channel Islands National Park.

Referring to a carefully supervised visit to San Miguel Island, which intrepid nature fans can arrange, Carol J. Spears, spokesperson for the Park Service told me: "We want people to land and walk the 17 miles."

This involves a $65 boat trip, which has to be booked through Island Packers, and takes a full day. You cannot do this with your own boat, by the way, because cruising near the island shore where the animals mate is against federal law.

But what you'll see, if you make the proper arrangements, is unique in the world, according to Dr. Robert L. DeLong of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, a unit of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"I've worked in the Channel Islands for all of my career," he said. But it wasn't until protective legislation was passed, first in the '40s and later during the Nixon Administration, DeLong said, that he finally saw an end to the indiscriminate killing of these creatures.

The result, one of the unique reversals of mankind's depredations against a fellow animal, could be ranked with the return of the peregrine falcon in our part of the world--achieved by banning DDT--and the restoration of the sea-run trout off the Japanese coast, achieved by voluntary limits on fishing.

In the case of the local sea lion, sometimes called "the elephant of the deep," this was accomplished, for the most part, when we humans simply stopped attacking them during their annual mass breeding and birthing seasons. Besides San Miguel Island, the only other site of such activity--on a smaller scale--is on a beach in South Africa. Folks used to come to the Channel Islands breeding grounds to hunt the elephant seal herds and their cousins--the harbor seal, the fur seal, the Stellar sea lion and the California sea lion--for sport and pelts.

Modern folks, fortunately, just want to watch in amazement as the largest of these creatures, big as Hondas and pretty as Jabba the Hutt, ponderously act out their annual drama. "Half of the 15,000 elephant seals born annually on San Miguel Island are pupped prior to this week (beginning June 12) and half afterwards," DeLong said. "But in the 1930s, only a thousand were born annually."

The main reason human activity near the pinnipeds is closely monitored during this time of year is that we can, just by coming too close, panic the sea mammals in their multitudes and cause pups to be suffocated or abandoned in a stampede. The rangers involved in the public's visit to the San Miguel Island watch humans very closely while the humans view the pinnipeds through telescopes, which are provided.

My own interest in this phenomenon of man nurturing, rather than exploiting, a fellow creature, was sparked by Dr. David Suzuki. During a speech I attended, the famous Canadian biologist was worrying aloud about the widespread destruction of species--an issue he details frequently in his PBS TV series, "The Nature Of Things." Then he cheered up and cited the few exceptions. Ours was at the top of his list.

*

* FYI: For information about a hiking visit to the sea mammal breeding and birthing area on San Miguel Island this month, call Channel Islands National Park, 658-5730.

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