National Geographic : 1948 Jan
Seal Hunting Off Jan Mayen BY OLE FRIELE BACKER * SEALING in icy seas even today means bold adventure. Big ships and powerful engines help reduce the hazards, yet vessels are lost nearly every year, "screwed down" (crushed and sunk) by relentless ice. As a youngster I feasted on all the books I could find about the sealers' life of hardship and danger. I became almost sick with wish ing-wishing I could be running over the northern ice floes as one of the hardy seal hunters. Years passed, and last spring when 31 sealing ships set out from Norway for the "Western Ice," I had a place on the motorship Polhavet ("Arctic Sea"). The "Western Ice" is the Norwegians' name for the rich seal-hunting region in the Norwe gian Sea north of Jan Mayen Island, between Iceland and Spitsbergen (map, page 61). There, where they crawl out on the ice to whelp, harp and hooded seals are killed by the thousand for the fur of the new-born young and for blubber. Eighteen of the 31 ships sailed from our home port of Alesund, the other 13 from Tromso. Sealing Fleet Sails North in March In the first days of March Alesund was astir with preparations (Plate II). Winter's white mantle lay over the tidy little coastal town. Snow still fell: March very often is our month of heaviest snowfall. But the sun lifted higher every day, its rays bringing new life and energy to Nature and humans alike. The bustle of activity reached to every corner of the harbor. The season of the her ring fisheries was drawing to a close. Interest shifted to the seal hunters, preparing ships and gear for the voyage to the Arctic. Crews overhauled their vessels and swung aboard fuel and stores. The round trip to the sealing grounds takes about six weeks, but provisions must be car ried for three months in case ships are caught in the treacherous ice. The great day came. At last we glided out of the harbor. As soon as we hit the open sea, setting course for the forbidding island of Jan Mayen, the captain ordered sails set, not so much to supplement the engine as to steady the lurching ship. Built round-hulled, like a bowl, so heavy ice would lift her from the water instead of crushing in her sides, the Polhavct pitched and rolled worse than any vessel I had ever been on before. The sturdy old ship had withstood the buffetings of 30 years at sea. Modernization had given her electric light and a new engine, which pushed her along at nine knots. Like many other sealers, the Polhavet was solidly built of oak with a tough skin of green heart. Thus armored, she could withstand the cruelest clawing of the steel-hard ice. The skipper sensed an approaching gale and had to reef canvas. Stiff with ice and snow, the sails seemed to fight the crew's struggles to subdue them. Johan Vartdal, 44 years old, was our hard bitten captain. He is one of Norway's leading Arctic pilots (page 63). Our crew consisted of 16 men, 11 of whom were to do the actual seal killing. Two of the hands were sons of the skipper and others also were relatives. All were young, between 17 and 30 (page 58). Keeping us company was another ship, the Kvitungen ("Whitecoat"), whose skipper is a cousin of Vartdal (Plate III). Weather Station on Wild Jan Mayen A howling head wind from the northwest slowed our progress. It blew the whole week it took us to reach Jan Mayen. Through breaks in the fog we caught glimpses of that rocky island, citadel of Nature at her wildest and loneliest. Some call Jan Mayen the stormiest spot in the world. A permanent Norwegian meteorological sta tion clings to the remote island. Bad weather prevented our landing, but we made contact with the station every day by radio. In addition to giving us weather reports twice a day, the isolated weathermen were glad to transmit our telegrams back to rela tives and friends in Norway. Half the crew was seasick going north, but now that was forgotten. Everybody thought and talked about only one thing: seals! The skipper spent his days up in the crow's nest looking for the drift ice. He climbed down for infrequent meals to get warmed up. Then back he would clamber to his high perch (Plate III and page 60). A round-the-clock watch was maintained on the radio, listening for messages between other ships ahead to get a preview of ice con ditions and to learn if anyone had yet spotted seals. A Norwegian regulation governs the opening of the sealing season. Last year killing of * The author is a distinguished officer of the Norwegian Navy.