National Geographic : 1948 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine The crew skinned the seals as soon as possible after hauling them aboard, while the animals still were warm (Plate VII). Thus the men saved their hands from frostbite in the chill Arctic weather. The skinners have to be very careful. A small cut may lead to what is called "fat finger," a sort of gangrene that makes the wounded digit black and hard as wood. It used to be almost incurable, but now it yields to the magic of penicillin. Baby seal pelts are most valuable, but we also shot some adults. Their stiff, hairy hide does not yield fur, but special treatment makes it soft and lustrous for use in gloves, handbags, and other accessories. Mounting heavy swells now began to break up the ice floes. Many infant seals slid into the water and drowned, for during the first weeks of their life they cannot swim. Catas trophes like this may take a much greater toll of the herds than does hunting. Fortunately, most of the mother seals had not yet given birth to their young, and they simply dived into the ocean and vanished. We never found this herd again. Its members probably swam many miles to the thick pack, which we could not penetrate. That day we got 500 seals. "Prepare to Abandon Ship!" The next night big ice floes crashing against the ship woke us time and again. At 3 a. m. a very strong bump jarred me out of sound sleep. A few minutes later word came down, "Prepare to abandon ship!" The rudder had been smashed, and the stout old Polhavct had sprung a leak. It was not a pleasant situation, but everyone took it calmly. Lifeboats were swung out. Using a tarpaulin, the crew managed to check the leak. With the help of the pumps we contrived to keep afloat. A few of the men, toiling long hours, suc ceeded in straightening the rudder. The work was ticklish, demanding skill and bravery. Like aerial performers in a circus, the men swung on ropes under the craft's stern. While all this was going on, some of the youngsters whose hands were not needed fried their last eggs and finished off the last of the good things which their mothers had given them when they left home. Toward evening the ship was almost tight again. She was difficult to maneuver but could go straight ahead and even turn a little to starboard. She could hardly be swung to port at all. If the rudder had been lost, it would have been impossible to guide the Polhavct. We would have been compelled to ask another sealer to pick us up and to leave the faithful. battered veteran to her lonely fate. Hunt Turns to Hooded Seals "Several thousand hooded seals found at 73° N., 9° W.!" The electrifying message, received by radio, put new pep into everyone. Next day we headed for the reported position, west of our previous hunting ground. Soon we met other ships steaming the same way. At noon we started sealing again, though the damaged rudder made the work difficult. We bumped into one big floe after another, despite the skipper's skillful directions. The hooded seal (Cystophora cristata) is much bigger than the harp, some weighing up to 900 pounds. Strong and fearless, it often has scars on its hide, apparently from en counters with polar bears and fights with other seals. Baby hooded seals are bigger than the whitecoats and may weigh 100 pounds. Their pelts, with a blue tone on the back, name the animals "blueback." The attractive fur is prized as trimming for ladies' coats (Plate I). With today's high prices, the thick fat layer (blubber) of the blueback is just as valuable as the pelt. Fur and fat together, they are worth about 100 kroner ($20.20) each. We took about 400 bluebacks. There must have been at least 5.000 in the vicinity. All ships in the area had flocked to this one spot. At nightfall we counted 30 masts. One ship was missing, the Hanscat of Tromso. She had been frozen into the ice. "What did I tell you!" Captain Vartdal remarked when he heard the news. "On the very first day in the ice she got a polar bear. That always means bad luck." The IIanscat did not break loose until six weeks later-with only 40 seals on board. Next day we found a few more seals. By then the sea had calmed so we could inspect our damage in detail. It was evident we were about to lose the rudder! To save his ship, the skipper headed for home at once. Our total catch was 1,000 seals, worth about 80,000 kroner ($16,160). Each crew member. working on shares, would collect about 1,400 kroner ($282.80). After settling expenses and paying for repairs, the ship still would make a small profit. Two more days of thumping through the ice and then-700 miles of open sea, home stretch of a long voyage.* * See, in the NATIONAL Gior;l'API'IC MAo;.\zI.:E, "Sealing Saga of Newfoundland," b Capt. Robert A. Bartlett, July, 1929.