Summer storm sweeps Steller pups from rookery

Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An unusually intense summer storm that roared off the Gulf of Alaska earlier this month knocked week-old Seller sea lion pups into thrashing seas.

This time, the horrible spectacle of baby sea lions being swept to their deaths in the unforgiving North Pacific was captured on remote video cameras linked to the scientists and local cable television in Seward.

Swells would break over one-ton bulls, hardly budging them. Other adults could swim well enough to handle the rough waves. But pups washing into the water could not make it back on to the rocks.

As researchers at the Alaska SeaLife Center recorded the scene, at least one animal foundered on screen.

''We have video of a pup in the surf struggling to get back ashore, and it just couldn't do anything in the surf,'' said research associate John Maniscalco, one of several scientists who monitor the rookery up to 18 hours each day. ''We assumed it just got washed away.''

By the time the storm subsided June 9, eight or nine of the 26 pups whose births had been recorded over the previous week were gone, apparently carried away to their deaths.

''There were a few mothers that obviously lost their pups during that storm and were calling for them,'' Maniscalco said.

Over the past three and half years, SeaLife scientists have used the camera and field visits to observe sea lions at Chiswell and two other sites. During the May to July breeding season, the SeaLife scientists concentrate on females and how much effort they put into their newborn pups. Some 35 to 40 adults had converged on the island, including cows that gave birth to 26 pups just before the storm.

Like other mammals, baby sea lions are virtually helpless. Though they float, the 30- to 40-pound newborns can't swim well during their first weeks of life. They remain with their mothers for at least a year.

Researchers had never seen such high seas during the past two summers, Maniscalco said. Making matters worse, the storm continued through two high tides.

''Waves were crashing up, up against the small cliff there in the rookery,'' Maniscalco said. ''Most of the sea lions were scurrying up high to get away. ... We have some video during the storm of mothers grabbing them by the scruff of the neck and dragging them up out of the waves.''

One cow, nicknamed Bubbles, had given birth only two days earlier, on June 6. After the storm, Bubbles was seen searching for her offspring among the rocks.

''Luckily, we are only about halfway through the breeding season and expect many more pups to be born,'' Maniscalco said. ''The losses might have been much greater if this storm hit in late June.''

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