The Day Before
I was on the ice the day before the seal hunt began this year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
I flew out from Charlottetown with a group of 10 in two helicopters. We were two helicopter pilots, four journalists and four International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) escorts. We flew into a massive area of broken ice pans in the North Atlantic. A scout plane had scoured the expanse of ice several hours before, looking for groups of seal pups. The ice below, averaging two to three feet thick, resembled a giant bowl of soup with a top layer of crushed crackers. We found the seals immediately but it was difficult to find a spot to touch down. The previous few days had been windy, and the ice pans were splintered and broken. After more than an hour of tedious search, the first pilot touched down on a pan of ice slightly wider than his helicopter. The pan swayed as the rotors ran out of spin.
On the ice
We jumped out of the helicopter onto a foreign surface. Looking around in every direction was ice glare and huge blue sky. It was the surface of the moon, silent, beautiful, and cold. We carried sticks to check the stability of the ice below at every step (at one point, a German journalist suddenly slid through to his thighs). Seal pups, several days old and skittish with the sudden appearance of the alien machine, lifted their round faces in curiosity and barked. Some scrabbled awkwardly away, looking back over their fuzzy and jiggly bodies. At this age, they're fat like cartoon characters and can't move quickly over their frozen cradle. I wanted to cuddle them, protect them, take them home, shoo them into the water away from the inevitable hunters. I wanted to stand guard.
The herd watched as our small group, clad in orange buoyant survival suits, balanced precariously on the shifting ice pans, squinting back. Their eyes are large, black and intelligent, and their coats are white and shaggy. Some had matured, and were losing their coats. Others were puffs of furry Jell-O, with eyes. Their bark is barely audible and sounds like a cross between a cat and a human baby's happy coos.
They are also innocent. Unbearably so, knowing what fate awaits them. Some scrambled away while others watched us with calm fascination. They had all been alive less than 12 days, and had been recently deserted by their mothers. But they're playful. They look happy.
Harp seals can live 30 years, but are hunted by humans-in either Greenland or Canada-every day of their life. The nursing stage lasts the first 12 days of their life. They wait in the coming weeks for the ice to melt so they can swim. If they don't have their brains bashed in by hunters paid government subsidies, they will soon plop into the dark waters below, and swim north.
I watched hours of last year's hunt footage the day before I stood on the ice, knowing that I wouldn't be around this year. Seals were bashed, bloody, shot, terrified, trying desperately to reach the water, being stomped on and clubbed-lurching ineffectively over the ice. Seals lunged into the water but lolled helpless in spreading blood clouds (seals dead and dying float). Warm and intelligent mammals, semi-conscious, flopping in the back of gore soaked boats like herring.
The hunt receives mixed reaction in the mainstream media and IFAW always looks for a news hook. Last year they blamed climate change for poor ice conditions, which caused many undeveloped pups to melt their way into the soggy ice, essentially digging their own grave. A Globe and Mail journalist joined IFAW activists, running around the pans, lifting the helpless seals out of the ice. This year, a handful of stories appeared in major newspapers quoting scientific reports that supposedly proved that the rise in popularity of Viagra was lowering demand for seal penises, which are a popular Asian aphrodisiac.
Dr. David Lavigne, IFAW Science Advisor, said the news stories were mostly "a crock". He said that there was really only anecdotal evidence, though IFAW appreciated any reason to further curtail the hunt.
It's a time-honoured tradition on the frozen Gulf of St. Lawrence: Activist groups inviting VIPs, politicians and journalists to the ice floes to meet the whitecoat pups, in days leading up to the seal hunt. The most famous example of this-Greenpeace helicoptering Brigette Bardot in the seventies, and sending the images around the world-sparked public outrage against the seal hunt.
Original activists achieved celebrity status (complete with groupies in tow, according to some reports) at the seal hunt with direct action protests, confronting the hunters on the ice floes. These were the days before strict laws ensured that the hunters and activists kept their distance from one another. In the days before the hunt started, the activists would come out on the ice and commune with the pups, under whatever chemical influence the day called for. This was the late sixties.
And now, three decades later, the hunt marches on.