Add this question to the many mysteries of Iliamna Lake: Where theheck do its unique, freshwater harbor seals go when the lake andrivers freeze shut? Dave Withrow, a federal research biologist who has flown numerousaerial surveys to count them, has spotted close to 300 of the sealsin late summer. In deep winter when there are no openings in the ice, he’s countedas many as 73. During other such times, he’s found none. Localsfrom nearby villages say the seals live there year-round, and basedon what he’s seen, he believes them. Which begs the question: “How can 280 seals just disappear?” Maybe the seals have a hidden cave where they winter, he once jokedwith colleagues.
Then an elder told him just such an undergroundcave existed, providing freshwater access for the seals year-round,a legend that gets a mention in a recent article by a state Fish and Game biologist . “We were just totally joking, but to hear an elder say that waslike, ‘Really? I don’t believe it,'” Withrow said. Welcome to Alaska’s deepest and most massive lake, some 200 milessouthwest of Anchorage across Cook Inlet. The seals, hunted by Alaska Native villagers from communities likeKokhanok on the lake’s southern shores, are fatter than seagoingharbor seals, and have thicker fur.
The hunting was firstdocumented by a Russian explorer in 1819, according to the article. The animals are just one of two such harbor-seal populations in theworld, and Withrow hopes to determine if they’re a geneticallydistinct stock. But they’re just one of the lake’s mysteries.There’s also the strange white beast that’s said to occasionallyripple the surface, a la the Loch Ness Monster. An Alaska scientist thinks the “Iliamna Lake Monster,” as somelocals call it, might be sleeper sharks that spend much of their time dwelling on the bottom of the lake,occasionally rising to the surface to feed. Bruce Wright, the scientist who led the Exxon Valdez restorationeffort for the federal government, hopes to catch a sleeper sharkthis summer after capturing them on video with a waterproof cameralowered in a cage. Deck Roll Forming Machine
But, in a lake covering 1,600 square miles and 1,000 feet deep, hehas to narrow down the search. To learn where the sharks mightlurk, he’s trying to figure out what they eat. Maybe they feast onhuge runs of red salmon that surge 75 miles up the Kvichak Riverafter leaving Bristol Bay. Maybe they chomp on the seals, rippingout their midsections with a form of night vision that senseselectromagnetic fields when animals move. Legend also has it that the bottom reaches of the lake are filledwith saltwater where the sharks can dwell year-round, and thatmaybe there’s some sort of connection to Cook Inlet. Roll Forming Machinery
It sounds likesomething out of McElligot’s Pool in the Dr. Seuss classic of the same name. Anything’s possible in McElligot’s Pool, and whoknows, maybe it’s the same for Iliamna Lake. At any rate, Wrightplans to check out the saltwater theory, too, lowering a meter thatcan detect salinity. Withrow isn’t convinced of the sleeper shark theory, though headmits he can’t disprove it either. Steel Tile Forming Machine Manufacturer
He’s conducted about six aerial surveys per year since 2007, andhe’s never seen a sleeper shark from the air in the lake. Growingmore than 20 feet long, they’d be visible in the lake’s clearwater. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Maybe they don’tbother with the seals because there’s enough fish to keep themfull.
Withrow believes it’s more likely the baffling creature is asturgeon, a prehistoric fish with a long snout. They grow severalfeet long and are known for swimming up rivers and into lakes, afeat that in the shallow Kvichak River would be tough for a sleepershark. Or, maybe the sturgeon, or some other beast, has been there sincethe last Ice Age, waiting to be discovered, he said.