The Harp Seal Gods must have been smiling on me as from what I am told, I am the second group to make it out on the ice to photograph them in three years. Conditions were practically perfect, though the ice was disturbingly thin. While it managed to hold the helicopter, we had to use a ski pole (without the basket) to test for firmness before planting each footstep. One of the photographers with me wasn't so lucky as the ice broke and down he went. He was ok, though soaked, and fortunately, the helicopter was heated and there were towels there for him to dry off. But it served as a warning to the rest of us, carrying our expensive camera equipment, that caution was critical, especially given the frigid temperatures with the wind factor. For the most part, I didn't encounter any problems, though there were many times my pole went right through the ice and I knew not to step there.
On the second helicopter flight out two days later, our copter traveled offshore for twenty-five minutes before finding the seals on the ice. This was disturbing as the flight last time was only ten minutes offshore. But fortunately, this ice seemed to be significantly more sturdy to walk on and we encountered no one falling through. This was also later in the afternoon when we could have encountered softer ice, but as luck would have it, we had a perfect setting....warm, no wind, and perfect setting sun light.
Today, I was taken to the airport for my flight and train ride home. I was told that rains were now projected for the next day and reminded how incredibly lucky I was to have gotten on the ice in such incredible conditions. I will have to express my thanks to the weather Gods soon, as I am still digesting this experience. The time I got to spend on the ice with the Harp Seals truly was spectacular. It was nine hours in total, including helicopter flight times. It saddens me that many of the younger ones will soon be hunted and killed for their pelts, but I tried to not dwell on that aspect of this and to use this opportunity to photograph these creatures in all their beauty and surroundings. One thought I did have was that given the thinning ice, it will be much tougher for the hunters in their boats to figure out how to reach them, and that may serve as a small blessing for some of them.
When I wasn't out on the ice, I took time to explore and tour the island. The Ilse de Madeleine is really a beautiful island and I left wanting to return in the summer sometime when I could enjoy its warm and vibrant habitat. In the winter, about two thirds of the population vacates the island and it kind of felt like a ghost town in some ways. But it also added to the serenity and starkness to see the landscape blanketed in white snow with so few tourists. One museum I took in was the Seal Museum, where they explain the evolution of the Seal Hunt and what it has evolved to today. The government regulates this hunt supposedly quite strictly. There is a permit now required to captain a boat for the hunt, and each hunter who kills a seal must have a permit. Then the person who skins the seal, which is usually done out on the ice must have a permit, as well as any observers of the hunt must also have a permit. No one can have two permits, meaning one who kills a seal can not skin the seal, and these permits can not be sold or traded or passed down in their family. I got the impression that the government was, over time, hoping to slowly reduce the number of permits available. The government regulates the design and size of the tool that is used to kill the seal, as well as requires that seals be of a certain age before they can be slaughtered, which I think is about 21 days minimum. The seals are killed by using the wooden bar with the metal blunt end (not the blade) and crashing it down onto the seal's skull. This is supposedly a soft part of the Seal and if one blow is properly done, it would kill the young seal. The Humane Society, though, claims to have witnessed that it can take up to thirteen blows to kill a seal. The current market value for a Seal's pelt is approximately $80 to $100. Last year, the Canadian government issued a quota of 330,000 kills for the seals, a larger number than the prior year. For 2012, that quota was raised to 400,000. Some sources claim this to be the largest marine mammal slaughter on Earth.
With over six hundred images taken out on the ice, it will be awhile before I am able to select and edit the final images for this site. To learn more about this hunt from the Humane Society, please visit www.HarpSeals.org