Nerpas: The Amazing Seals of Baikal

I first read about nerpas in the book “Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal” by Peter Thomson. It was a book we read for class in preparation for traveling to Baikal, about Peter’s own travels through Siberia and around Baikal. He described the seals, with their big eyes and soft fur coats, zooming around the water eating golomyanka. He made them seem so bright and happy, it made me sad when upon further reading I found out their population is dwindling. Their numbers could be anywhere between 60,000-100,000 seals in the huge Baikal region, with the vast majority of them living on the lake itself. They seem to be pretty hard to count exactly, which makes sense seeing as they spend a lot of time underwater and during the winter they live in little grottos they dig out under the ice.
A young nerpa perched on a rock
Ever since reading about them, I was really excited at the prospect of maybe being able to see one when we adventured around Baikal. What I didn’t realize is how famous these freshwater pinniped are not only in the towns on or close to the shores of Baikal, but also in the towns further away from the lake, like Ulan Ude. I was surprised to see little magnets and souvenirs with nerpa pups pictured on them, figuring that Ulan Ude was far enough from the lake that nerpa merchandise wouldn’t necessarily be popular. I was very wrong, and there were even nerpa souvenirs as far away as Kyakhta, a city on the Mongolian border. I suppose it makes sense. I’m from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, which is over an hour’s drive from Lake Superior, and yet Lake Superior souvenirs are sold in my town. I guess
We were lucky enough to be able to visit a museum on the southwestern shore of Baikal in the town of Listvianka that has two nerpas swimming around in an aquarium, along with a number of other Baikal fish in various tanks, and other exhibits about the lake and its history. The nerpas were fascinating to watch, especially because when they swim they make themselves as hydrodynamic as possible by tucking in their necks and every other part of them. They looked a lot like big, plump balloons shooting through the water. Once they surfaced and flopped onto flat land, they elongated and looked more like the seals you might see in nature magazines or calendars.
(A video I took of the nerpas swimming around in the museum in Listvianka)
One of the coolest things I learned about nerpas is that they carry on average two more liters of blood than other seals their size. This allows them to stay underwater for very long periods of time. Typically, most dives only last 2-4 minutes, but can last up to 70 minutes if they feel they are in serious danger. As a swimmer, holding my breath has been something I’ve always needed to work on, and the idea of holding my breath for more than a few minutes, let alone an hour, is astounding to me. Nerpas are seriously amazing.

Article written by schromm

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