Google, Alaska fur seals and me
From time to time, I type my name on Google just to see what traces I can find of myself out there in the wide world of the Internet. Invariably, I come up with a handful of my ancient published newspaper and magazine articles, more recent letters-to-the-editor, my comments on other people's web sites, and my own postings on this blog. I have even discovered a 20-year old clipping of my son's wedding announcement on The New York Times' Sunday society pages and a clipping from my wife's college alumni magazine reporting our visit to the campus for her 45th anniversary reunion in 1995.
I'm then edged off Google's pages by three cousins, all prominent in their respective fields, who bear my surname. For one first cousin, a renowned research cardiologist and medical school professor, Google provides a roster of his research papers. For another first cousin, recently deceased, a retired U-Cal/Berkeley professor and a highly regarded artist, the search engine offers samples of his work. And for a cousin, the daughter of another first cousin and also a successful artist, Google reports on her many exhibits here and abroad.
In the midst of these citations about my three highly talented cousins, I was recently astonished to find a press release headlined: "Fur seals with rubber collars baffle Fish & Wildlife Service biologists." The release contained a note to editors reading: "Photos of rubber collars on fur seals are available and may be obtained from Morton A. Reichek at the Division of Information, FWS, Washington, D.C." An office phone number is shown on the press release.
There is a problem for any Google reader who might want those photos of the Alaska fur seals with rubber collars. I wrote that press release nearly 58 years ago. It is dated Sept. 10, 1948. At that time, fresh out of college, I was working as an "information & editorial specialist" (civil service jargon for press agent) at the U.S. Interior Dept.'s Fish & Wildlife Service.
It was an extraordinary work environment for a kid from the Bronx whose only "outdoor" experience had been acquired during military service. There I was writing press releases about such exotic matters as Federal duck-hunting regulations, the preservation of whooping cranes and trumpeter swans, a census of the herring on the Georges Bank off the Canadian coast, and a fowl cholera epidemic that was baffling North Carolina hunters.
And then there were those Alaska fur seals with rubber collars on their necks, found on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. The Fish & Wildlife Service was the official Federal presence on the islands. The fur seals go ashore on these bleak, volcanic islands in late spring to give birth and to breed. They return to the the Pacific Ocean in November, migrating southward. Despite their heavy fur pelts the seals are apparently wise enough to escape the polar winters.
Until 1985 the Federal government supervised what was euphemistically called "commercial sealing operations" or "harvesting" of the seal herds. Young males aged two to five were killed for their pelts by the islands' Aleut inhabitants. They were actually employees of a Federal contractor, a St. Louis-based fur company. The commercial killing was halted as a conservation measure, and the island's natives are now allowed to kill the seals only for "subsistence" purposes.
For a couple of years, many of the young seals were coming ashore on the Pribilofs with a ring-like piece of thin rubber on their necks. The Fish & Wildlife Service biologists were baffled by the collars' origin. The rubber collars fitted snugly around the seals' necks and cut through the fur and skin of the animals. They resembled the rolled top of a woman's stocking.
At first, the biologists speculated that Japanese or Russian scientists studying fur-seal migratory habits had placed the rubber collars on the animals' necks for identification purposes. But the theory could not be proven. A more plausible explanation was developed by specialists at the Wright-Patterson Air Base in Dayton, Ohio, to whom samples of the rubber collars had been sent.
The purpose of the government press release that I wrote on Sept. 10, 1948, and which Google has amazingly uncovered for posterity, was to reveal the solution to the fur-seal rubber-collar mystery.
After examining the collars, the Air Force specialists determined that they were fragments of rubber bags used by the Japanese during World War II for aerial delivery of food and water to their besieged troops on the occupied Aleutian Islands. According to the specialists' theory, many of the aerial bags missed their mark when parachuted down and were blown out to sea where they floated on the surface of the water.
The food in the bags attracted the small pup seals who probably plunged through the narrow openings of the rubber bags. Clinging to the seals' necks, the bags could not be dislodged and eventually crumbled away. The rubber rings remained on the necks of the fur seals as collars.
My press release was picked up widely by the media. As I recall, the photos were published in Life Magazine and other major publications. If TV was in existence at the time, the pictures of my fur seals with the rubber collars would have been a smash hit.
Thanks to Google for uncovering evidence of my accomplishment as a fur-seal publicist nearly 58 years ago. I will never understand how Google does it.