National Geographic : 2004 Mar
the margarita slush, peering over the lip of the ice to check on their pups. The rhythmic rise and fall of their heads looks like pistons coupled to an invisible crankshaft. It's mid-March, high season for harp seals. They have migrated 2,000 miles south from the Arctic to reach their traditional spring quarters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland. All the big events of their lives-mating, giv ing birth, molting-happen here, where blizzards rake the frozen sea and currents crumple the floes into an icy Stonehenge. I have come to the gulf to witness this southern sojourn of Pagophilusgroenlandicus,the "ice-lover from Greenland." But there's another reason for being here. Forty years ago a bitter con troversy broke out between Canadian sealers and animal-welfare groups over the hunting of baby harp seals. The harp seal pup, with its fluffy white coat and black pleading eyes, became the darling of the antisealing movement and a symbol of all that was wrong with human exploitation of nature. After nearly two decades of fervent protest, the European Eco nomic Community bowed to pressure from environmentalists and in 1983 banned the importation of whitecoat pelts and all harp seal products, a mandate that crippled the seal trade. For many the battle ended there: a victory for nature. But fur is back in fashion, and although the whitecoat pup is protected under Canadian law, the hunt for older pups is booming. In fact, more harp seals are taken today than at any other time in the past 35 years. The North Atlantic seal hunt has become the largest marine mammal hunt in the world. Given this renewed pressure, how is the species faring today? Have protest and legislation secured the harp seal's future? Or is Pagophilusdestined to go the way of the great whales, its surviv ing populations only pathetic remnants of a once prolific species? rue to the old adage, March 2003 comes in like a lion. Ontario residents shovel seven-foot snowdrifts to get out their front doors. Three of the Great Lakes freeze over, delaying the start of the shipping season. The Magdalen Islands, a fishhook-shaped archipelago in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is clenched in a fist of ice and shivers in below-zero temperatures. From the air, during the 30-mile helicopter flight from the Magdalens to the harp seal breeding grounds, the gulf looks like the mother of all wedding cakes, the work of battalions of bakers who have heaped on swirling mountains of white frosting. My eyes strain to pick out the whelping patches: clusters of mothers and pups basking beside leads of open water. Frozen afterbirth and smudges of red on the ice show where pups have been born. Sea ice is critical to harp seals for giving birth and nursing pups and, several weeks later, for molting. The ice has to be thick and stable enough to support the seals, but if it's too thick they can't keep their breathing holes open. If the ice lingers into spring, migrate south to whelp Ing grounds off Labrador and Newfoundland and in the Gulfof St. Lawrence. Two smaller populations use whelping sites off Jan Mayen island and in Russia's White Sea.