The Pribilof Islands are a four-island archipelago in the Bering Sea, 300 miles from Alaska's mainland. The islands are part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and are known for their excellent birding and resident fur seal population.
About the Pribilof Islands
While little more than treeless, tundra-covered hills, the shoreline and cliffs of St. Paul and St. George Islands are teeming with wildlife, making these two islands excellent for birding tours and wildlife viewing. Two small communities, one on each island – St. Paul, population 450, and St. George, population 112 – are the world’s largest indigenous Alutiiq villages, providing services to the trickle of wildlife enthusiasts that make their way out to the middle of the Bering Sea.
Things to do
The Pribilof Islands host the largest gathering of marine animals in the world. The islands' dizzying ocean cliffs are home to extensive bird rookeries, providing 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 that can be viewed on cliffs, beaches, tundra, and wetlands. Species including common murres, crested auklets, tufted puffins, and cormorants nest on the Pribilofs, particularly St. George, making it the largest seabird colony in the northern hemisphere. Guided birding tours are the best way to explore the area, but birding can also be enjoyed by simply walking the roads and hiking trails to popular viewing spots.
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. Viewing blinds have been set up on beaches to observe these animals and Steller sea lions, walruses, and sea otters.
Most visitors to the Pribilof Islands arrive in St. Paul as part of a multi-day guided birding and wildlife viewing trip. Due to the remote location and limited services on the islands, joining a guided tour ensures that the logistics of transportation, lodging, and meals are taken care of.
In addition to wildlife viewing, St. Paul and St. George are home to historical Russian Orthodox churches reflecting the area’s Russian history. The impressive St George the Great Martyr Russian Orthodox Church was built in 1935 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The focal point of St Paul is Sts. Peter and Paul Church, built in 1907, also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Getting to the Pribilof Islands
The Pribilof Islands are located in the Bering Sea, 750 miles west of Anchorage. St. Paul and St. George are the only inhabited islands and are accessible by air and sea. Most visitors reach the islands by scheduled air service from Anchorage to St. Paul.
Although Alutiiq 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 Alutiiq people 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 Alutiiq communities slid into poverty.
During World War II, residents of the islands were evacuated to Southeast Alaska as 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 and seal numbers have since rebounded. The present-day communities are primarily Alutiiq and the main industries are fishing and tourism.