The Pribilof Islands are a four-island archipelago marooned in the Bering Sea, 300 miles from Alaska's mainland. The islands are part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and known for its excellent birding and its resident fur-seal population.
About the Pribilof Islands
Although Aleut people traditionally traveled to the Pribilofs seasonally for hunting, the islands were uninhabited when Russian fur trader Gavrill Pribylov arrived at St. George Island in 1786. For two years, the Russian American Company enslaved and relocated Aleuts from Siberia and the Aleutian Islands to the Pribilofs to hunt fur seals; today’s island residents are descendants. After being overhunted by the Russians, fur seal numbers crashed and the Aleut communities slid into poverty. During World War II, residents of the islands were evacuated to Southeast Alaska as the Pacific Theater of the war heated up and the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands. Living conditions for evacuees were substandard, without access to proper sanitation or medical care, and many died. After the war, residents eventually returned to the Pribilofs and were compensated for the unjust treatment. In 1985, commercial seal harvesting ceased. Today, the only hunting allowed is for subsistence purposes. Seal numbers have since rebounded and the Pribilofs' charcoal-colored beaches host a mad scene each summer.
Things to do
While little more than treeless, tundra-covered hills, the shoreline and cliffs of St. Paul and St. George Islands are teaming with wildlife, making these two islands excellent for wildlife viewing and birding. Two small communities, one on each island – St. Paul, population 450, and St. George, population 112 – are the world’s largest indigenous Aleut villages and provide services to the trickle of wildlife enthusiasts that make their way out to the middle of Bering Sea.
The Pribilof Islands host the largest gathering of marine mammals in the world; the islands' dizzying ocean cliffs are home to extensive bird rookeries. More than 2.5 million seabirds, ranging from common murres and crested auklets to tufted puffins and cormorants, nest on the Pribilofs, particularly St. George, making it the largest seabird colony in the Northern Hemisphere. More than 230 species are sighted during the summer, while blinds have been erected on beaches to observe northern fur seals, Steller sea lions, walruses and sea otters. Bird watching and wildlife viewing tours of the islands are available.
The Pribilof Islands provide some of the best birding opportunities in Alaska. The islands are the seasonal homes for approximately 2.5 million birds representing more than 200 different species and are often viewed on cliffs, beaches, tundra and wetlands. Least auklets are frequently seen as they pass over the villages, commuting the volcanic hills and the sea. On the cliffs common murres compete for space with tufted and horned puffins, crested auklets, red-faced cormorants and red-legged kittiwakes. Birding is often part of organized guided tours but also can be enjoyed simply walking the basic roads and hiking trails to popular viewing spots.
SS Peter and Paul church - St Paul
The focal point of St Paul is SS Peter and Paul Church, whose rich Russian Orthodox interior with its icons can be visited.
St George the Martyr Church - St George
This is St George's impressive Russian Orthodox church. Interpretive tours can be arranged that include visiting the church along with the former St. George Seal Plant, the only remaining facility in the world where the fur sealing process can be re-visited.
Each summer more than a million northern fur seals arrive at the Pribilof Islands to breed and raise their young, representing the largest gathering of sea mammals in the world. Visitors use blinds that have been erected on beaches to observe the northern fur seals as well as Steller's sea lions, walruses and sea otters.