(Image credits: http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A4%D0%B0%D0%B9%D0%BB:Baikal_seal_200507_hakone_japan.JPG.)
In this blog, we’ll talk about our obsession with the nerpa, the world’s only freshwater seal. The nerpa is endemic to Lake Baikal, and how the nerpa came to exist is an interesting story in of itself. As you may have picked up from another blog, Lake Baikal is the oldest lake in the world, dating back some 25 million years. At some point during this time, a couple of clumsy seals found themselves stuck in the world’s biggest freshwater supply. We don’t know why exactly they stayed, but it probably has something to do with the Golomyanka, a fish composed 70% of oil, which is good for making blubber, a necessity in such cold climes*. In any case, the pioneering salt-water seals evolved into fresh-water nerpas. We’re writing about the nerpa primarily because they’re unbearably cute, but also because they’re one of Baikal’s great icons and their recent history sheds light on the development of Lake Baikal itself.
(Perhaps the nerpa saw those storm clouds before we did...)
Our first, and only, encounter with a real nerpa was in the Baikal Museum, near the town of Listvyanka on the western shore of Lake Baikal. The Baikal Museum used to be called the Limnological Museum but has since been spruced up with a name change to give it a more general appeal. They’ve also made several cunning moves to make it a more entertaining experience for tourists. One such addition is the aquarium, which houses a pair of nerpas. Another is the simulated submarine ride to the bottom of Lake Baikal – visitors sit in a small submarine shaped room and watch television screens (shaped like portholes of course) that show the marine life floating around at different levels. Meanwhile, our captain, one of the museum workers, commentated the trip for us with an uncanny ability to know exactly which porthole the fish were going to pass by before they actually got here – this apparently wasn’t her first trip to the bottom of Baikal. Some might call that hokey, but it really was quite well done. One of the great fascinations of Lake Baikal is its ability to sustain life right to its bottom and the endemic species that count on this. We had read plenty about this phenomenon in our reading for the program, but it took an aquarium and a ride in a magical submarine to really bring the point home. The Baikal Museum must have an ambitious leader right now because their expansion plans are far from over. They want to rebuild the building into a rather modern glass structure and extend the aquarium onto a circular jetty over the lake. We wish them the best of luck.
Although Diane probably wouldn’t admit it, all that educational nonsense was entirely secondary in her reasoning for taking us to the museum. Sleep-deprived Diane really just wanted to watch the nerpas swim back and forth for twenty minutes, as did we all. Aquariums are great. We had visited a zoo in Ulan-Ude a couple of days earlier and been both interested and saddened by the state of the animals. Visitors fed the bears, who would literally sit and gaze longingly at them with their paws through the bars, and one wolf ran around in crazy circles jumping onto his shelter only to jump off again. It was a sad place. Aquariums, on the other hand, don’t give off that sadness. I guess it’s hard to feel bad for a fish, first of all, and they don’t really show that much emotion anyway. But the nerpas were in a pretty small area and swam wildly back and forth just like that poor wolf. Yet somehow, the nerpas, in mimicking that wolf, seemed playful rather than crazed. It was uplifting rather than depressing.
A nerpa looks almost like a spherical blob, as you’ll see in the photos. They also behave kind of like those Microsoft Windows screensavers where an object bounces around the screen at a constant speed and you’re always waiting for it to bounce exactly in the corner but it very rarely does, usually hitting one edge just before the other - The Office, a popular American sitcom, once used this as a subplot. In other words, the nerpas swim back and forth between the two rooms, which our guide refers to as the dining room and bedroom, bouncing off the walls and turning around at each end. The younger of the two nerpas, whose blubber was immense, was an almost perfect sphere and often threw herself quite forcefully against the wall to send herself off with a quick flip-turn in the other direction. We followed them back and forth from one room to another, hoping that they would notice us and race us as our guide had suggested they might. The biggest disappointment was their unwillingness to swim through the floating hula hoop that was in their bedroom. Just like we’ve all waited for the screensaver icon to bounce into the corner, we waited for the nerpas to eventually bounce through the hula hoop (they have to eventually, by the laws of probability) but they never quite made it. Our guide tells us that nerpas in other aquariums have been taught to count and draw things… these nerpas could use a bit more schooling. Unfortunately, our submarine was awaiting us and we had to leave the nerpas for a trip to the bottom of Lake Baikal, their habitat. And that was the only time that we would see live nerpas, but it certainly wasn’t the only time we thought about them.
Our own inclination towards these bouncing-ball-shaped creatures seems to be a regional trend: nerpas serve as logos on Baikal bottled water, and as subject for endless numbers of plush toys, souvenirs, and craft work. You can even find on Wikipedia a photo of a nerpa costume at a nerpa festival in Irkutsk. As symbols go, the nerpa is a fairly ideal one when stylized - utterly unique and utterly suited to relieve tourists of their rubles. However, the problem of cultural image coming into contention with the ecological reality is an issue shared even by the nerpa. Opinions surrounding Baikal as a whole tend to be rather polarized - as the deepest, cleanest, coldest lake in the world, complete with an internalized filtration system (composed of small shrimp called epishura), there is a tendency to view humanity and its effects around the lake as comparatively inconsequential, a mosquito to Baikal's serene elephant. Geologically speaking, this is probably true - Baikal has been around for upwards of 25 million years, and in another million or so its quite probable that no traces of tourists, pollution, old factories, or warming temperatures will remain. However, for the more short term, ecologically minded, there are already warning signs - even among the cultural icon of the nerpa.
The most visible example of those signs is the plain lack of nerpa along many of Olkhon's shores, which Mark will expand on later in this post. More subversive, and an indication that Baikal isn't quite as all-powerful and all-purifying as some might say, is the high level of industrial byproducts found in Nerpa blubber - comparable to the level found in the blubble of Baltic Sea seals. While our valiant epishura does a fantastic job of filtering the water, they are but a link in Baikal's foodchain, and all of the impurities that they filter out gather in their bodies, which are then consumed by higher level predators in great numbers. Ultimately, this results in those industrial byproducts concentrating in ever-higher amounts (often increasing by orders of magnitude) as one moves up the foodchain, a process called bio-magnification. Our take on this problem stems primarily from Peter Thomson's Sacred Sea.
Even though we never saw the wild nerpa we had all dreamed of for so long, this is probably all for the best. Living with our romanticized, imaginary idea of a playful population of cuddly seals might in fact be the healthiest thing for all parties involved. Who knows, perhaps a wild nerpa wouldn’t turn out to be as playful as the two we saw at the Baikal museum aquarium, who, let’s face it, didn’t have much else to do in their “two-room apartment” (as our guide put it) than to vie for the attention of passing tourists. Maybe a real nerpa wouldn’t be as happy or as people-loving as the smiling, clayware nerpas in the arms of the smiling, clayware Buryats for sale in the souvenir shops. At the end of the day, the last thing any of us wanted was to be roused from our collective illusion. Nor did we imagine our fascination with the nerpa species was anything approaching mutual. (Okay, we all imagined it, but we didn’t believe it.) For proof of this sad fact we needed only to look at the seal-free beaches where our guide told us nerpas once frequented—before the tourists came. No, not seal-clubbing poachers, not water-poisoning industry, but plain old, well-meaning, noisy, intrusive tourists. We won’t go into the ethics of tourism here (though it certainly applies), as Shane and Ben have already discussed that topic; instead let’s just leave it at the observation that nerpas and people don’t appear to be as compatible as we might like to believe.
(Where there once were nerpas)
While the seal’s loss of these few strips of shoreline doesn’t constitute population-threatening habitat loss, this doesn’t mean humans aren’t hurting the species in other ways. Scientists have in fact noted population declines in recent decades, which may be attributable to surprisingly high (considering the supposedly pristine nature of the lake) levels of dioxins and other harmful chemicals attributed to industry and human activity. We did hear some good news on this front, such as the recent closing of the Baikalsk paper plant, the only major industry ever built on the actual shoreline of Lake Baikal, and recent studies showing a drop in dioxin levels in Baikal seals, but as the activists we met with explained, the fight for Baikal’s environmental protection is far from over. For us, anyway, the merest whisper of a threat to our friend (that’s right, friend) the nerpa was enough to spark at least concern, if not outrage. Good thing for Baikal that it has such an adorable, unique poster animal to garner public interest. And good thing for the nerpa that it has proven so elusive; the whole trip we told myself that we would be satisfied only when we laid eyes on a nerpa in the wild, and if this beautiful species is going to survive human dominion in its home waters, the pacification of potential allies is the last thing it needs.
(another historical nerpa gathering place, populated now by only seagulls)
*An interesting note about the golumyanka - they reproduce so rapidly and extensively, that without the nerpa munching on them constantly they would make the lake uninhabitable for the other species there.