MAGDALEN ISLANDS - The French television crew flying with me and two tourists in the helicopter off the coast of the Magdalen Islands touch a very sensitive subject as they spot blood traces on the ice floe beneath us.
“Oh! Look at all this blood! Is it the hunting season?”
The question makes our guide’s teeth grind.
“No. What you are seeing is the birth of baby seals,” he says.
Towards the end of February, hundreds of thousands of harp seals come from the Arctic to give birth to their pups on the ice that surrounds the Magdalenian archipelago, which is in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, about midway between New Brunswick and Newfoundland.
During those two to three weeks, it’s possible to witness one of the most spectacular events in the world. The frozen lunar landscape slowly becomes animated by the presence of this gigantic herd of nomadic creatures from the frozen seas.
The helicopter lands on the ice floe, and we step out onto this amazing place where the sky and the snow blend in immaculate white scenery.
We hear cries but we can’t see anything.
Bundled in our yellow polar outfits and armed with walking sticks, we carefully venture onto the ice, following our experienced guide carefully. Soon the helicopter disappears, and we are alone in the blazing white landscape.
Left: Aurelie seals her adventure by kissing this slippery inhabitant of the Magdalen Islands. Right: Our writer cuddles with a white coat on the ice floes of the Magdalen Islands.
Then our guide points to our left. We see red stains on the ice, leading to a seal and her baby latching.
“Do not get too close to that one,” he warns us.
Another couple of steps and we see dozens of baby seals and moms moving slowly on the ice. Some pups can’t keep up the pace and cry.
“These babies are almost weaned,” the guide tells us. “The moms are out to reproduce again and they will soon be on their own.”
Right after birth, the “white coats,” as they are called because of their woolly snowy fur, feed on their mother’s milk (40 per cent fat) for two weeks and grow at a staggering rate. Their lovely white fur soon becomes “ragged jackets” until they grow a silvery dark patched coat. Then they’re left alone to fend for themselves as their moms leave to mate again.
So, the pups have two weeks to gain enough fat to survive until they can crawl to the sea, dive and learn how to fish to feed themselves. It’s at this stage that they are most vulnerable; predators lurk on and under the ice. Many pups never make it to the sea.
Seal hunting is an ancient tradition to the Madelinots. But a huge campaign against this practice, and especially against hunting the “white coats,” has all but finished the commercial market. Now only individuals with permits can hunt seals — and there are many restrictions.
An exhibition at the Seal Interpretation Centre in Grande-Entrée Island explains in more detail the history of seal hunting. The topic is controversial and extremely sensitive, so I decided not to sail on such troubled waters.
Left: The white coats melt your heart with their big eyes. Right: Helicopters deliver tourists and nature lovers to the ice floes.
The furry pups and their cries attract me irrepressibly. I ask my guide for permission to get closer and possibly to pet one.
“Be my guest,” he says, “but avoid those with moms.”
I kneel next to a “white coat” lying on its side. He looks at me and then waves in a sort of invitation to come closer. I lie down beside him and he touches me with his flipper.
His huge dark eyes plunge into mine and I melt. I come closer and pet the pup. He moves against me and rubs his head against my neck. I’ve just made a new friend.
I spend the rest of the morning meeting and petting dozens of “white coats” and spotting harp seals popping their heads out of holes in the ice.
It’s a mesmerizing and almost surreal experience I am not likely ever to forget.