OVER THE THOUSAND-FOOT CLIFFS of the Pribilof Islands in Alaska, millions of birds swoop and dive. They are red-faced cormorants, parakeet and least auklets, black- and red-legged kittiwakes, tufted and horned puffins, thick-billed and common murres. They flash orange, yellow, red streaks of color on their black, white, and gray bodies. They flash over the cliffs, sea, and land, the verdant green of Saint George and Saint Paul Islands. Their colors dazzle.
A group of horned puffins are perched on a boulder awaiting their friend’s landing. Horned puffins are one of two puffin species that nest on Saint Paul Island, the other species being tufted puffins. They have football-shaped bodies and short wings, meaning they might not be the best at flying but they are excellent divers, which is important for catching fish. Photo: Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island.
The Pribilofs, which sometimes have been called “the Galápagos of the North,” have long been home to Unangan, or the Aleut peoples, whose lives are deeply interconnected with those of the birds and with the vast populations of fish, northern fur seals, and Steller sea lions. Situated three hundred miles west of mainland Alaska, around five hundred Unangan call Saint Paul and Saint George Islands home.
Reindeer roam the islands, outnumbering the people. Arctic foxes navigate steep cliffs nimbly or track fish along the shores. The attentive or lucky may spot whales swimming and jumping in the waters off the islands—orca, sei, fin, beaked, bowhead, and gray whales, occasionally the rare North Pacific right whales, and even an unknown species of whale stranded on the shores of Saint George Island in 2014.
These are remote, treeless, windy islands, known for their beauty and incredible biodiversity and known, too, for the resilience of their people.
The cliffs of Saint George form the ideal summer breeding habitat for several species of seabirds. Saint George has over 600 times the cliff space of Saint Paul, creating visually different landscapes across the sister islands, despite the short distance between the two. Photo: Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island.
Both Pat Pletnikoff, the longtime former mayor of Saint George Island, and Amos Philemonoff, the current president of the Aleut community of Saint Paul Island, grew up on these islands. Both agreed the resources and way of life here are precious and rare.
“Growing up here, you don’t know anything else,” Pletnikoff said. “It’s absolutely isolated. When I was a kid, a vessel came through with supplies five times a year with your Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward clothes orders—like Christmas every time.”
Paying attention to the outside world, then, to the birds and fur seals, came naturally to Pletnikoff and Philemonoff. It’s something they’ve each valued throughout their lives.
“I love to watch the birds,” Pletnikoff said, “the kittiwakes and least auklets, to watch the fur seals on the rookeries, the care the mothers give to the pups, teaching them how to swim in the shallow, calm waters first and the rougher water next.”
Video courtesy of the city of Saint George.
Philemonoff grew up spending most of his time on the water around Saint Paul Island, fishing commercially since he was ten years old. “The beauty of Saint Paul is looking at it from the fishing grounds,” he said, “the sunsets, with the island in the backdrop or when the fog spills in over the cliffs.”
Not only older generations understand and appreciate the beauty of the place. Seabird expert Veronica Padula works closely with local youth as the education and research development director for the Tribal Government of Saint Paul Island, and through the Seabird Youth Network, an organization focused on educating Pribilof Islands’ youth on seabird ecology through research, monitoring, and education. Padula also studies the impact of marine debris and plastics on seabirds in the Pribilofs at the University of Alaska.
“You talk to kids here and they know the seabirds like the back of their hands,” she said. “It is a very prominent part of their lives and something they’re proud of.”
Nearly three million birds representing more than three hundred species visit Saint George and Saint Paul Islands during the summer to breed and forage.
“I feel spoiled here,” Padula said, “because Saint Paul Island is literally a bucket list island for birders. We harbor some special species.”
Some of Padula’s favorites include the red-faced cormorants, which she described as “rare, iridescent birds” who look ancient with their three-toed stance. The kittiwakes, too, are special in how they fly, how they “look like little kites in the sky,” Padula said.
A red-faced cormorant (in bright breeding plumage) is endemic to Alaska within its North American range (also found in Russia and Japan). Saint Paul Island is home to one of the largest breeding populations of red-faced cormorants in the Bering Sea. Photo: Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island.
But the murres were the ones Padula described as “some of my favorite birds.” The black-and-white birds look like a cross between a penguin and a loon. With their nests on cliff ledges, they face the bluffs shoulder to shoulder, “all talking to each other,” she said, “and they sound like they’re laughing. You can sit out there and listen to the wind blow, the waves crash, the murres laughing—I love all of that.”
A large part of what has historically drawn the murres, kittiwakes, and cormorants to these islands is the ready supply of fish that have long thrived in the nutrient-rich waters on and off the Bering Sea shelf break. The shelf break and waters fifty miles around the islands support one of the most productive marine food webs in the world. The currents off the shelf create a circular flow of water around the islands, an environment in which planktonic organisms prosper and add to the rich waters that support the fish, birds, and marine mammals.
Common and thick-billed murres intermingle on the cliffs of Saint Paul Island where they lay their eggs on tiny ledges. It is difficult to distinguish the species from one another from a distance, but if you look closely, common murres have longer and thinner bills compared to thick-billed murres, and the white plumage on a common murre’s breast forms a U whereas on a thick-billed murre it forms a V. Photo: Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island.
The fish then are a food source for some seabirds, Steller sea lions, and fur seals alike. The world also gets halibut and vast quantities of pollock from these waters that Amos Philemonoff has been fishing since he was a child. The pollock fishery in the Bering Sea is the biggest commercial fishery by weight in the world, accounting for about a third of all U.S. seafood landing in the United States.
Though marine debris, rising water temperatures, and other environmental factors affect the intricate marine food web, many fish, sea lions, birds, and fur seals still hang on though not in such great numbers.
This rich marine habitat also is especially crucial for survival of the world’s population of northern fur seals, a species listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. About half the world’s population of fur seals calls the Pribilofs home. The seals breed and raise their pups on the islands from June through November each year, and according to Pletnikoff, about a hundred thousand pups are born annually at Pribilof Island rookeries.
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Unangax̂ on both islands have a vested interest in protecting the fur seals and their habitat. Paul Melovidov has worked with the Tribal Government of Saint Paul Island for the last twelve years to protect and increase knowledge about the animals and marine life here. His current role is island sentinel coordinator. Melovidov grew up on the island and has lived most of his life there, except for a brief stint in the military.
“That sense of community as soon as you left the islands was gone,” Melovidov said. “The longing to get back was strong.”
He particularly missed the shifts in seasons. “It’s around April or May when things start coming back to life from the winter months. The kittiwakes are out. The northern fur seals are finally coming off and on, along the shorelines. About that time, you start to see the snow is melting, and there’ll be a patch of green. That is a special time for me. I never get tired of April, May, and into June. It’s something I look forward to every year.”
Unangax̂ have lived permanently on Saint Paul and Saint George Islands since the late 1700s, but utilized the Pribilof Islands as hunting and fishing grounds for more than ten thousand years. Pre-Russian contact, Unangan did not live full-time on the islands now known as Saint Paul and Saint George. Instead, archaeological sites make it clear Unangax̂ used the islands to hunt, fish, and gather bird eggs and as sites of occasional refuge from storms, Pletnikoff said. Unangax̂ understood the importance of the islands to the fur seals.
The town of Saint Paul, pictured here from the shoreline adjacent to Gorbatch Bay. The Bay is used as a resting habitat by non-breeding male northern fur seals during the summer and fall annually. Photo: Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island.
“The world was for them and for us, and we did not separate or distinguish between the two,” Pletnikoff said. “It’s the birthplace of the winds there. That’s where we see it all begin, and from there, the wind moves everything east. It keeps us balanced and we need to maintain that balance.”
Saint George Island is named after the Saint George, the first Russian ship to land on the islands in 1786. For more than a century after, things would be out of balance for Unangax̂ and the fur seals. Unangan were forced to harvest northern fur seal pelts for export, first under Russian and then United States’ rule, harvesting unsustainable numbers of them and otters for their pelts. This practice ended in 1984, when the United States ended the commercial harvest of northern fur seals on the Pribilof Islands.
Today, Unangax̂ traditionally hunt and harvest fur seals each year for cultural arts and crafts, food security, and to maintain traditional ways of life. The federal government regulates the annual allowable maximum harvest but tribal entities locally manage the respective islands. Saint George tribal members are allowed to harvest three hundred to five hundred juvenile male seals (younger than seven years old) a year, and Saint Paul tribal members are allowed up to two thousand. In reality, the communities take many fewer seals than the regulation allows. Traditional harvests enable tribal members to feed their families and the communities through sharing and are critical to supplementing store-bought groceries that are expensive, limited, and often poor quality because they are either flown in by cargo plane or brought in by barge. So, as has been true since early days, the fate and health of Unangax̂ and the seals are linked today also.
Mother and pup fur seals cover the rookeries, rocky shoreline areas, on Saint Paul and Saint George Island from July to November. Photo: Aleut Community of Saint Paul Island.
Like many Unangax̂, Melovidov is a subsistence hunter and harvester. Part of his job for the Tribal Government of Saint Paul Island also includes monitoring harvest numbers. The work is a part of the place and the culture that’s personal to him, as well.
“When I was gone, I missed how the culture involved here was where you would hunt and gather each year. It’s just a part of life,” Melovidov said. “I didn’t do that when I left the island.”
Living off what’s there—what can be sustainably hunted or caught—is a way of life that has rewards as well as challenges.
“It costs a lot of money to live in paradise,” Philemonoff said. “My family and I eat a lot of reindeer and halibut and salmon. We get a lot of salmon from Prince of Wales Island since my wife has ties there.”
Island Sentinel Paul Melovidov looks out on the Bering Sea from East Landing, located in town on Saint Paul Island. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Pletnikoff said the beauty of the place, for him, is the whole of it—the birds, fish, sky, sounds.
“It’s home,” Melovidov said. “I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else. I don’t desire to be anyplace else.” Pletnikoff and Philemonoff repeated the same.
Residents on these windswept and isolated islands know that the isolation and beauty, too, are intrinsically linked.
“You see it most every spring, the magnificence of every day,” Pletnikoff said. “When you come from a place like that, it’s hard to understand the rest of the world—when you come from such isolation and wonder.”
Editor’s Note: Saint George Mayor Pat Pletnikoff, who was interviewed for this article many times over the past two years, passed away in August. With his passing, the Pribilof Islands communities lost a respected Unangan leader, a champion for his people, and an important voice for conservation and Indigenous stewardship in the region.