[an error occurred while processing this directive]

More to Explore

Did You Know?
Related Links
NGS Resources

Harp Seals On Assignment

Harp Seals On Assignment

Harp Seals
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

Harp Seals Zoom In

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer's technical notes.

Harp Seals Zoom In Thumbnail 1
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Harp Seals Zoom In Thumbnail 2
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Harp Seals Zoom In Thumbnail 3
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Harp Seals Zoom In Thumbnail 4
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Harp Seals Zoom In Thumbnail 5
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Harp Seals Zoom In Thumbnail 6
Click to ZOOM IN >>

Photo captions by
Michael Klesius

Harp Seals Map

Seal Range

Map Thumbnail

Click to enlarge >>

By Kennedy WarnePhotographs by Brian Skerry

Wolves of the sea to fishermen and cause célèbre for anti-fur activists, the irresistible animals are raising tempers again.

Read or print the full article.

Car license plates in Quebec—which includes the Magdalen Islands, or Îles de la Madeleine—bear the legend, Je me souviens, meaning "I remember." The Madelinots, as the 95 percent of islanders who are French-speaking call themselves, do not easily let go of their 250 years of history and traditions. They remember the dark days following 1755 when, fleeing deportation by the British, the islands' founding families made their way from what is now Nova Scotia to start a new life. Though farming folk, these exiled Acadians were forced to turn to the sea for sustenance. Today the fishing industry makes up 80 percent of the islands' economy. A thousand of the 13,000 islanders fish for a living, and a similar number process the catches of lobster, crab, herring, and mackerel.

Madelinot fishermen also remember the two decades of tribulation that began in the 1960s when antihunt campaigners, spearheaded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and later by Greenpeace, triggered the eventual collapse of the seal trade. Portrayed as murderers and barbarians, fishermen suffered the contempt of the masses as television brought graphic scenes from the ice fields of the North Atlantic into the living rooms of Europe and North America.
Taking part in what had been known as the greatest hunt in the world—an enterprise that in the 19th century had involved more than 13,000 men and 400 sailing ships—was no longer a matter of pride but a mark of shame. Once hailed as "Vikings of the ice," the sealers were now the scum of the earth. The Madelinots' cries of Nous ne sommes pas des bouchers! —We are not butchers!—sounded hollow when accompanied by photographs of upraised clubs and bloodstained ice.
Jocelyn Thériault was a youngster when the protests peaked. Now 34, he owns a one-third share in a 65-foot (20-meter) fishing boat, Manon Yvon. He, his brother, and a cousin fish for snow crab and redfish. They used to fish for cod, too, but in April 2003 the North Atlantic cod fishery, which had failed to recover despite closures and dramatically reduced harvests, was shut down indefinitely by the Canadian government.
The demise of the cod industry has given renewed purpose to modern-day harp seal hunters: The livelihood of fishermen like Thériault depends on harvesting whatever the sea has to offer—including seals. Since 1987, when Canada outlawed commercial hunting for whitecoat pups, the main focus of the hunt has been molted pups known as beaters—so named because they tend to thrash the water when they swim, not because the traditional method of killing them is with clubs. Today beater pelts can be worth 40 Canadian dollars or more to a hunter.
I meet Thériault at the wharf in Cap-aux-Meules, the commercial center of the islands. He and his crew are loading supplies for the seal hunt, set to begin in a couple of days, ice permitting. Like all fishermen in this region, he can fish only eight months of the year because the coast is icebound through the winter. When he can't fish, he collects unemployment. With a 1.5-million-dollar boat to pay off, four months is a long time without significant income—and a long time to be ashore if your life is the sea.

Subscribe to National Geographic magazine.

E-mail this page to a friend


VIDEO Learn about harp seals and the men who hunt them in this video interview with photographer Brian

AUDIO Hear the complete interview (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia

Listen to the birdlike cries and gurgles a harp seal pup uses to call its mother on the windswept icepack.

Is harp seal hunting a sustainable harvest or a senseless slaughter?

Decorate your desktop with this portrait of a harp seal pup on the ice pack.

There is a healthy market for seal skins. Would you wear harp seal fur?

Yes      No

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Have you ever wondered how to tell the difference between a sea lion and a seal? Both marine mammals belong to the order Pinnipedia, which means "fin-footed" and both are very agile in the water and adept at diving. While the sleek sea lion uses its front flippers to push itself through the water, steering with the rear flippers, the chubbier seal propels itself with its rear flippers and steers with the front ones. The sea lion's flippers are also more flexible than the seal's. On land, the sea lion walks using its flippers like feet. It lifts itself up on the front flippers and rotates its hind flippers forward and under its body. A seal, on the other hand, must crawl along the ground with its front flippers while it drags its hind flippers behind. Another distinguishing feature of the sea lion is its ear flap. A seal has a small opening on each side of its head that serves as an ear, but no visible external flap covering it.

—Abby Tipton
Did You Know?

Related Links
Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Visit this government website to get information on seal biology, management, and research.
International Fund for Animal Welfare
This animal welfare group has been at the forefront of the campaign to save the harp seals since the late 1960s. Its website outlines arguments against expanding the hunt for these seals.
Seal Conservation Society
Looking for a detailed bibliography of reports, research papers, and other literature about seals? Visit this site dedicated to the protection and conservation of pinnipeds worldwide.
Canadian Sealers Association
Want to read and learn what the sealers of Newfoundland and Quebec have to say about their industry? This website represents over 6,000 sealers licensed by the Canadian government.

National Geographic Expeditions: Canadian Arctic Voyage
Join National Geographic photographer and wildlife expert Brian Skerry on an expedition in August 2004 aboard the elegant Le Levant to a landscape few are privileged to see.


"Atlantic Seal Hunt 2003-2005 Management Plan," Fisheries Resource Management-Atlantic, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, 2003. 
Bonner, W. Nigel, The Natural History of Seals. Facts on File, 1990.
Lavigne, David M., and Kit M. Kovacs. Harps and Hoods. University of Waterloo Press, 1988.
McLaren, Ian, and others. "
Report of the Eminent Panel on Seal Management." Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Fall 2001. 
Perrin, William F., Bernd Wursig, and J. G. M. Thewissen, eds. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press, 2002.
Sergeant, D. E. Harp Seals, Man and Ice. Department of Fisheries and Oceans, 1991.


NGS Resources
Tourtellot, Jonathan B. "Seal Watching Adventure." National Geographic Traveler (January/February 1996), 105-6.
"Seal Appeal." National Geographic World ((December 1991), 20-1.
"Seal Watch." National Geographic World (March 1991), 4-9.
Lavigne, David M. " Life or Death for the Harp Seal." National Geographic (January 1976),  128-42.


© 2004 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe