The Aleutian Islands are home to a thriving marine ecosystem, unmatched in its biological productivity and diversity of marine life. Stretching along a 1,100 mile arc, the Aleutian Islands extends from the Alaska Peninsula towards Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, lying south of the Bering Sea, west of the Gulf of Alaska and as the northern border of the Pacific Ocean. Otherwise known as the “birth place of the winds," these islands are characterized by massive storm systems that influence weather of the entire North American continent, inter-island tidal rips that can make 100 foot boats bob like bath toys, and rugged undersea terrain that is seemingly of another world. While these conditions may seem harsh, they are drivers of a rich marine ecosystem, and these spectacular islands provide sanctuary for some of the largest populations of unique marine mammals, seabirds, fish and invertebrates in the world.
Extreme winter weather systems and oceanic upwelling draw cold nutrient-rich waters from the depths of the ocean. An abundance of nutrients and long summer days create conditions which allow explosions in primary production, the growth of microscopic plant life called phytoplankton, the base of the ecosystem’s food chain. Spring and late summer phytoplankton blooms provide the base of this extensive marine food web and the platform for over 450 species of fish and invertebrates.
Harvest of fish such as Pacific halibut, pollock, Pacific cod, sablefish, and Atka mackerel provide numerous jobs within the region and support the subsistence lifestyle of indigenous Aleuts and residents of the Aleutian Islands. Many other fish species, including sculpin, rock greenling, gunnels, species of rock fish, sole, flounder, and other flatfish call the area home and are commonly observed by fishers and scuba divers. Invertebrates play no less of a role. Various fishing methods are used to harvest red king crab, Tanner and Dungeness crabs, shrimp, bidarkis (chitons), shield limpets, and sea urchins. One glance into a tidepool reveals a world of pink coralline algae, bright orange and red anemones, clumsy hermit crabs, and a magnificent array of seastars. Rolling waves of kelp in the nearshore provide shelter for fish nurseries, Giant pacific octopus, soft corals, large vase sponges, and colonial bryozoans.
In the Aleutian Islands, the extensive marine life extends from the sea to the air. Each year, an abundant source of food and mild ice-free winters attracts 40-50 million seabirds, birds that spend the better part of their lives away from land on the ocean. These birds come to the Aleutian Islands to feed and build nests precipitously perched on steep cliffs. Visitors to the area are often greeted by an abundance of bald eagles, ravens, cormorants, pigeon guillemots, kittiwakes, various gull species and ducks. Wandering along the shore, rock sandpipers and oystercatchers along with other shorebirds are common sites. Just offshore, horned and tufted puffins, murres, auklets, fulmars, and shearwaters call these waters home. If you are lucky you may even spot such rarities as the short-tailed albatross, red-legged kittiwake, or Steller eiders.
The rich food sources of the Aleutian Islands also draw in a host of charismatic marine mammals. Summer months bring in humpback whales and harbor porpoises nearshore, while orcas, sperm and grey whales can occasionally be seen further out to sea. Endangered Steller sea lions can be seen nearshore thrashing salmon and other fish and invertebrates in the air. Threatened Northern sea otters can be seen lazily floating among the kelp forests, and, if you look closely, you may catch a harbor seal peaking its head just above the surface.
The marine life of the Aleutian Islands is vibrant and spectacular. Visitors will not be disappointed with these close and personal wildlife experiences, or the joy and energy derived from being surrounded by this pristine marine environment.