Harp Seals: Iles de la Madeleine, Quebec, Canada
At the beginning of March 2014, I was invited to accompany another nature photographer to take images of the annual birthing of Harp Seals on the sea ice. I met him on Iles de la Madeleine in northeastern Canada in the Gulf of St Lawrence. Locating the Harp Seals and their pups required a helicopter to take us wherever the sea ice drifted from day to day. The first helicopter in the morning could search an hour or more out at sea before sighting a group of seals that the helicopter could land near. When making our arrangements for this expedition we decided it best to reserve rooms in the hotel that was connected with the helicopter company and provided an experienced expedition guide. It was a good thing we did this because when we arrived the snow was several feet deep and almost nothing was open for the winter.
I was as cold as I had ever been anywhere including Antarctica. The helicopter company provided a beautiful yellow “mustang” survival suit. The suit helped to keep me “almost warm” in the -38 degree weather that did not include the wind chill factor. Thank goodness I was wearing some of my Antarctica gear under my suit!
The Harp Seal is an earless seal native to the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. They get their names from the harp-like marking that develops in the fur on their backs. The males develop the markings at about 7 years of age and the females at about 12. Their fame came from the annual harvest of pups during the first week or two of their lives. Each year at the end of February the females return to the sea ice near the coast and gather in small groups to give birth to one pup each. The pups are born with thick yellow fur and are called "Yellow Coats" at this stage. They immediately start to feed and the "yellow" color of their coats lasts only 2 to 3 days before the sun bleaches their fur a white, white. I saw newborns with their "deflated" saggy yellow coats and then saw them turn white within days as they lay on the snow and the ice in the bright sunlight. The pups gain approximately 5 to 6 pounds per day from nursing on milk that is approximately 50% fat. The mother seals provide the pups with this milk for about 12 days. The mother seals have to leave often during these first twelve days to hunt for food for themselves. Very quickly the deflated saggy yellow coats are stretched over a rapidly enlarging body. It was these yellow and white coats that nearly led to the extinction of the harp seals. Only recently did pups receive the protection from hunting during this early stage of their development.
After the first twelve days the mother seals leave their pups on the ice and do not return. The pups cannot yet enter the sea and undergo a third development stage in which they have their first moult and the white coats become "Blue Coats." During these 7 to 8 weeks laying around on the ice the changing coat eventually becomes the sleek leather-looking coat of an adult seal. At this period the locals call them "Ragged Jackets." They are also referred to as "Beaters." The seals “beat” the water with their flippers as they are not able to swim at this stage. It is during this period that it is legal to hunt them.
Apparently people do not desire the blue stage for as many products as the white coats. The local people still hunt seals for their fur and as part of their diet but the numbers of seals taken is very small compared to earlier times. It is dangerous to shoot a gun on the sea ice with other hunters about as they have been shot from ricocheting rounds. I was told that the crushing of the pup’s head with a club was the preferred hunting method in Canada as the original yellow and white coats were not damaged. There are seal hunts in Greenland and Norway, but are not well followed by the public. Recently, rumor has it, the Russian government passed a bill to ban seal hunts that garnered 273 votes for the banning and 1 against. The one against was the veto by President Vladimir Putin and his vote won...seal hunts continue.
The pups remain on the pack ice for 7 to 8 weeks after the mothers leave. They can loose up to 50% of their accumulated body fat during is period. If the fishing for the mothers had not been good during the first 12 days and the pups were slightly undernourished the mortality rate can be very high. Weather can be terrible and can contribute to reducing the number of pups. When the mass hunts were taking place there were almost no survivors from year to year. The fur and blubber (fat) are essential to the survival of the seals as they are their only insulation from the extreme cold. The shape of the seal as it develops into a juvenile, combined with the blubber and the water resistant fur provides buoyancy, insulation and energy for their lives in the sea. A new environmental problem is causing wildlife all over the Arctic region problems, that is climate change. This has reduced the amount of pack ice available not only to provide nurseries for the Harp Seals but reduces the territory for polar bears to use when moving around and hunting.
Once a pup leaves the pack ice it can live 20 to 30 years. It is during this period of their lives that a lot of blame is heaped on them as the reason the fish stocks are dwindling and fishermen cannot make a living. Objective research has shown this not to be the case. Un-regulated fishing, oceanic pollution and warming are taking the greatest tolls on worldwide fishing. In the area I was taking these photographs the local people also said that there had been an upswing in the number of buyers of Harp Seals penises for their aphrodisiac effect in Chinese medicine.
There are several graphic memories of these animals and their uniqueness. The first is the mothers diving into and out of an air hole usually near their pups. The mother slips without fuss into the hole to fish. Later she would lift her head out enough for her line of vision to clear the edge of the hole to see her pup. She cautiously looks around before flinging herself onto the ice. But it is the large and wide, dark eyes that are expressive to me in both mother and pup. The eyes are adapted to underwater travel and hunting. The seals can drop a clear membrane over their eyes to protect them from seawater. The size of the eyes is mesmerizing. Several times I caught myself returning the stare that I labeled "curiosity." At other times I interpreted the sincere looks between mother and pup as whole vocabularies of enquiry and emotion. The eyes definitely have it and being a positive person how could I not be attracted to the "eyes" and not the "no"ses.