Range: Throughout the Pacific Rim—from Japan to California’s Channel Islands; Main breeding grounds in the Pribilof and Commander Islands in the Bering Sea
Population: Approximately 620,660 (est. 2017 for eastern Pacific population)
IUCN Red List Status: Vulnerable
How to Spot Them: Stocky body; small head, very short snout; external earflaps; extremely dense fur; longest flippers in the Oatriidae family—their hind flippers can measure up to 1/4th their total body length; Males can reach 7 feet, 600 pounds, females can reach 5 feet, 120 pounds.
With wide eyes, rolled ears, drooping whiskers and a twitchy snout poking through the water’s surface, northern fur seals top the list of the ocean’s “awww”-inducing animals. And for those hoping to get a closer look at these charismatic creatures, there’s no better place than the Pribilof Islands, off the west coast of Alaska. This wildlife-rich archipelago, once known as the Fur Seal Islands, is home to the largest breeding rookery and more than half the world’s population of northern fur seals.
Today they are found in relative abundance in and around these islands, but fur seals were once hunted to near extinction for their dense fur (the second thickest in the animal kingdom after sea otters). In 1911 the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention helped regulate commercial hunting and the Fur Seal Act of 1966 finally banned it completely, with the exception of subsistence hunting for native communities. The population is now protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and remains pretty stable, but it’s still half the size it was in the 1950s.
The only one of nine species of fur seals to be found north of the equator, these pinnipeds are pelagic creatures by nature, living almost all of the time in the open ocean, and only coming ashore on rocky or sandy beaches to breed and pup. At around four months juvenile seals head out to sea, bobbing, diving, and floating for years before reaching maturity and returning to their natal islands to start the breeding cycle once again.
Discover more fascinating facts about fur seals:
Eared seals like fur seals and sea lions (which furs are often confused with) have external earflaps, can walk on all fours, and rotate those big hind flippers. A telltale way to tell them apart: fur seals are dark brown when dry and black when wet—much darker than the blonde and brown sea lions.
Drifting to Sleep
As pelagic animals, these seals have developed a special ‘jug-handle’ position for sleeping at sea—they extend their nose, both hind flippers and one front flipper above the surface. The reason for this comical-looking behavior isn’t exactly clear but it may be a way to conserve body heat in chilly waters.
Bear in Mind
It’s no wonder 18th-century European explorers dubbed these thick-furred seals “sea bears”—they actually evolved from the same land ancestors that gave rise to dogs and bears. And that thick bear-like fur (they have 300,000 hairs per square inch!) needs a whole lot of grooming—a behavior that also keeps their nails in tip-top shape.
Fur seals may look cuddly but breeding season can get ferocious. Males fight rival males—sometimes to the death—until a territory is established. Then they wait for females to arrive, never leaving even to eat, and losing up to 25% of body fat. The most powerful males, known as bulls, gather harems of up to 40 females and do the majority of the breeding.
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