- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

ISLA DE LOBOS, Uruguay — The boat crosses calm, fog-shrouded waters toward Isla de Lobos, South America’s largest seal sanctuary, off the coast of Uruguay.

Isla de Lobos — the Island of Wolves — lies two miles from the wild coasts of Punta del Este, 87 miles east of Montevideo. It is part of a coastal island chain that is now a national park and home to an estimated 350,000 South American fur seals (Arctocephalus australis) and 15,000 South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens).

About 180,000 seals live on Isla de Lobos, a 101-acre island. Their life span is 20 to 30 years. The males weigh up to 400 pounds and the females 100 pounds.

The little boat is packed with food and fuel for the lighthouse keeper and an employee of Uruguay’s National Directorate of Aquatic Resources (NDAR). They are to stay on the island for a 14-day shift — if climate and sea conditions allow them to return on schedule.

From a distance, only the island’s enormous lighthouse is visible. Built 194 feet tall in 1906, it is one of the tallest concrete lighthouses in the world, and a blessing for navigators. Between 1876 and 1905 there were more than 60 shipwrecks in these waters.

Then the rocky coast appears, fringed with green and a few buildings: the lighthouse keeper’s house and a factory used until 1991 to slaughter the seals and harvest their fur. Today, it provides quarters for the government caretaker.

Next one notices the smell of the seals, which are hard to distinguish as they sprawl across the granite rocks as if they were feather pillows.

The sound of the seals — high-pitched squeals, cries, snorts, sneezes, coughs and giant yawns — mixes with that of sea gulls and other birds: petrels, albatross, pigeons, herons, even black-necked swans.

The island’s flora is scant — stunted trees, cactus, reeds.

Many of the seals have gone out into the ocean in search of food — anchovies and squid — but others lounge lazily among the rocks. Mothers nurse their pups.

Bright, curious eyes shine from the seals’ heads, which look as if they could revolve 360 degrees on their flexible necks.

The sea lions are much bigger — the males weight 770 pounds, the females 440 — but less numerous. They roll and sleep in the sand, giving an occasional roar.

Only the two workers and the privileged few authorized by the government can set foot on the island. Tourist boats stay at a respectful distance.

But even though they are protected here, the sea lions are targeted by fishermen because they destroy their nets and plunder their capture.

“The sea lion and the fisherman are looking for the same thing — sea bass, hake, small sharks — and there’s competition,” said Alberto Ponce de Leon, head of the NDAR’s department of marine mammals.

The fishermen throw noise bombs into the water to scare the sea lions, even though the practice is banned.

“They also kill them with clubs, harpoons, slings and even rifles,” Mr. Ponce de Leon said.

It’s hard to know how many are slaughtered this way, and it is difficult to stop. The fisherman need to make a living.

What is certain is that the sea lion population is dwindling while the fur seals are flourishing.

Beyond the island, all is not hostility toward the marine mammals.

At the port in Punta del Este some fur seals and a pair of enormous sea lions frolic near a pier, where fishermen cleaning and selling their catch fling them the waste and even put some directly into the animals’ mouths.

Their only concern seems to be dozens of sea gulls crowding round, hoping for a taste.

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