Working in cooperation with research centers near Lake Baikal in eastern Russia, and with the Baikal Watch and the Baikal Wave conservation organizations, Terry Woodall traveled to Lake Baikal from mid-June to mid-July, 2008, observing and recording the Baikal Seal (also called “Nerpa”) in its habitat. He researched current information on its status in the natural world at research centers near Lake Baikal and met with many people in the region to encourage the conservation of their special ecosystems and stress the importance of the Nerpa as a world wildlife treasure. From there, he ventured to the remote reaches of the lake and observed a main seal haulout on the Ushkanni Islands.
The Baikal Seal is the only indigenous freshwater seal in the world, although a small number of a sub-species of ringed seals has been found inhabiting Lake Lagoda and Saima Lake [the two connect] in Finland. This population has existed in these lakes for many generations although these lakes in Finland are connected to the sea by a man-made canal. On the other hand, the Russian seals are isolated a thousand miles from the nearest sea in Lake Baikal, which is the largest [in volume] and deepest lake in the world. Adjoining the lake, Zabaikalsky National Park encompasses the Holy Nose Peninsula and the Ushkanin Islands, the primary haul- out areas of the seals. This national park adjoins the Barguzinsky Zapovednik conservation area, one of the first in Russia, established in 1916 to protect the sable. Wildlife found in this huge wilderness area include brown bear, mountain goat, snow sheep, reindeer, elk, moose, Siberian Roe, wild boar, musk deer, white tailed deer, lynx, wolf, wolverine, and dozens of other fur bearing animals including the sable and ermine. The Siberian Tiger also prowled the lake's shores until the 19th century.
The ecology of the lake is tied to the well-being of the seals, and many efforts and ongoing studies have been made on their behalf. The seals are dependent on adequate ice floes during a short molting period that is critical to their reproduction, which could be affected by global warming and is of particular interest concerning their future. They have been hunted since prehistoric days, and their numbers are monitored and controlled today, as hunting continues. Counts and estimates vary, but about 60,000 animals seems to be the consensus. Hunting quotas are set according to these figures and the health of the seal populations. The main threats to the seals are poaching and pollution. The Baikal Seal's molting and birthing relies rely on a small window of opportunity dependentant on the seasonal ice cycles. Their successful reproduction can be threatened by disrupted ice cycles.
Through his artwork, Woodall hopes to encourage more interest in this unique ecology. Working with recognized research/conservation organizations contributed to the success of the expedition. There are research organizations working in the area, including Baikal Wave, which has focused on protection of the Nerpa. Baikal Wave, with its extensive research available, assisted with local logistics and information on the Nerpa. Also, the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, a conservation partnership between Lake Tahoe, California, and Lake Baikal, Russia provided logistical support for the expedition.
Woodall made many presentations celebrating the seals and displaying the AFC flag, including an art exhibit of his sculptures at the Nature Museum in Irkutsk, the major city closest to Lake Baikal. From there, the AFC flag was presented at the Limnological Institute in Listvyanka, a town on lake Baikal, 40 miles from Irkutsk. The institute is a research center for the science and biology of the lake, and includes a nerpaquarium.
To draw attention to their future plights and to encourage awareness of this pinniped world, Woodall will be creating and exhibiting wood sculptures of these creatures under the theme "Pinnipeds - The Ice is Moving". Woodall has spent many years sculpting a variety of pinnipeds after observing them from Oregon coastal headlands near his studio, and he considers them his favorite subjects.