Thursday, September 20, 2007

A seal and a sledgehammer

February 2001, Denmark Strait

The seals lie in rows on the steel deck, dead. Their blood congeals, freezes into pools, dark red ice between the bodies. They're a mix, harps and hoods. Mostly small, juveniles – young hoods in two-tone, blue-gray backs, cream bellies; harps in greys and dark speckles. But some larger bodies are arriving, adults - almost all harps.

A warning - expletives and gore follow.

The crane's motor whirs, the cage appears, lifting, the crewman inside with another corpse, impaled on the spike of his hakapik. The cage swings toward us, descends, angles towards the stern, the end of the lines of bodies. There's a thump as the crewman kicks the corpse off the hakapik, the new addition drops those final feet. It lies on the deck, bleeding. The crane's already whirring again, the cage lifting, swinging, the crewman bound for the ice once more.

A seal lies on her back, skinned, slit open, dead. I cut through her abdominal muscles, reach inside with my rubber-gloved hands, move entrails. Hold her stomach, slice it out from the rest of her digestive tract, drop the lump to the clear plastic bag that Lotta's holding open. Scrabble a little more through entrails, sloppy, stinking, find the large intestine. Trace it back from her anus. Hold both ends again, two cuts, the end of her gut - about a foot long - drops into another bag Lotta has ready. She makes some notes in black marker. I move entrails aside once more, find the seal's ovaries tucked against muscle wall. Two more quick slices, another plastic bag, we're done.

Now her jaw. I pick up the boltcutters lying where I'd left them last, the gap where I'd dissected the last seal. At least I can stand, give my back a rest. I prise her mouth open, set the jaws of the cutter back as far as I can on her lower jaw, right back where mandible meets cranium. Stand, squeeze in on the handles of the boltcutter. Finally, a crack, bone breaks. I repeat, cut the other side, and her lower jaw comes off. Another plastic bag, and her jaw – with teeth, from which we'll be able to tell her age – is labelled to match the other chunks of her body that we're saving.

I drag what remains of her skinned, eviscerated body towards the stern, to join the growing pile of bloody leftovers there. There are small chunks of muscle, guts lying around, freezing solid, everywhere. She's adult, so no-one will come for her meat, as they do the pups. I walk the few steps back, past the growing lines of dead seals. A couple of dozen now.

We've found a patch of several dozens - possibly hundreds – of seals on the ice, and finally, we're working hard. I hear another crack, as either Kjell or Bjørn pots another seal. I walk past one with a neck wound. With so many seals around, Kjell's now using his semi-automatic .308. Seems it's not as accurate as his bolt-action rifle – or Bjørn's – as the seals haven't all been shot in the head. Some are turning up with neck or chest shots, the occasional one with two bullet holes where Kjell's put a second round into them, to make sure.

Next one.

I bend over, tap the knuckle of my index finger on its eye – the blink test. Adult male, by his broader, chocolate brown head. No blink, he's dead. The crewman is supposed to do this when he first gets to them, on the ice, but my gut tells me he's not. Lotta has the tape, we measure length. Girth measure next, so I have to roll the seal over. Today's been almost all harps, some over 300 pounds, and I'm tiring. With a steel ruler, I measure the thickness of his blubber.

I bend down, pick up my knife. In my peripheral vision, I see Jim walking the rows of seals, shaking his head. He stops, shouts, “Hey, this one's not dead”.

I get up, walk over. It's happened before – seals appearing to breathe after they're already dead - something to do with their diving behaviour. It's why I always blink-test every corpse.

Jim isn't a marine mammal biologist – he's along to study the proteins that stop ice-dwelling fishes' blood from freezing. No-one had warned him about the seal killing.

He's right. A adult female harp seal is lying in the middle of a row, chest shuddering. She's older – the tan-brown, curved V patterned on her back shows clearly - the harp that gives these seals their name. Neck wound. It certainly looks like she's breathing. I bend over, blink-test her, and she blinks. I look up at Jim who's standing above me, arms folded.

“Yeah, she's alive.”. Jim shakes his head, glares.

I look around. There's a sledgehammer leaning against a wall, by the edge of the trawl deck. I walk over to get it.

Fuck. How long has she been lying there? Half an hour? An hour? More? Fuck. Isn't that dickhead supposed to do this BEFORE they come on board?

I grab the sledgehammer, walk back. Jim steps away. I meet his eyes, shake my head. I position myself, think about my aim, swing. My first blow's slightly off, hits the seal where her braincase meets her muzzle. A few chunks of skin and bone mulch into the steel deck. Frontal lobe peeks through.

Fuck. Quickly, poor thing.

I swing hard, hit true. The bone of her skull splinters under the hammer, revealing brain, light grey jelly. Again, to make sure. The next hit slams through what's left of the top of her skull. All of her brain now lies, open, mush on the deck.

Still holding the sledgehammer, I bend down, looking to blink test again. Some of her eye isn't splattered, I tap it. No response. I tap again, watching her chest. She's dead.

I stand. Look around. Everyone's watching, curious. I breathe out, put the sledgehammer back where I found it. No-one speaks.

I return to skinning.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

West Ice survey 2002: final


Read the first part of this post here

We tagged for a few more days. The ice was breaking up, pups were more spread out. Callan and I had trouble meeting up with Sofie and Ilse for a helicopter pickup – the ice was moving so fast in the wind and swell that their icehopping wasn't making headway towards us.

Interesting experience.


On the ice, scattered floes, scattered pups, we had a final scare. Lance was steaming near us. Floes started jostling each other in her wash, making movement difficult. Just standing still was getting dangerous. Lance kept coming, steamed to within a couple of hundred yards from where we were tagging. When only two big floes away, we realized that the crew hadn't noticed us. They were still coming

Garry radioed, and with a sharpness I'd not heard from him before, said, “Lance, what do you think you're doing?”.

They slowed, backed off, angled away. We could move again.

Then we heard it, and knew what had been so important. Crack crack – shots - explained their inattention. More seals killed to pass the time, using the excuse of Tore's permit. So much more important than tagging.

Sofie and I looked at each other. Ilse was recording a pup's calls, we were just hoping that she wouldn't hear the shots. Of course she did. When she'd finished the recordings, she walked to us, pale, eyes empty. We all looked at each other, shook our heads.

We kept working. Sofie and Ilse had trouble getting any recordings, and tagging got tougher. Females started coming for us as soon as we stood on the floe that held their pup. Spooked? Spooked didn't come close. The mothers were furious, terrified, ready to attack.

That last afternoon, we left more pups to aggressive mothers than we had for the entire time we'd been on the ice. And the floes were more spaced out. A debacle.

There were a couple of pups in the late afternoon, stuck on floes that would have taken some extra-adventurous icehopping to approach. We surveyed a path, started off. More open water than we'd thought. Garry saw a way through. Maybe. I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head – we'd already tagged hundreds of pups over the past few weeks.

“Garry”, I said, “are a couple of pups really going to make a difference?”.

He shrugged, pulled out the radio, called the helicopter.

It was our last walk on the ice.

The white pelts – the reason the pups were killed - weren't cleaned or salted on the voyage back. By the time we reached Tromsø, they were rubbish, unfit for any use. That anyone could view those small bundles of white, living joy as nothing more waste inside a fur seemed heartless to me. But to let the furs then rot was unimaginable, until I remembered. They're pests. They eat fish.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

West Ice survey 2002:VII


Read the first part of this post here.

Life on Lance took on its own pattern. Our routines were fun, days spent icehopping, tagging seals, helicopter flights for extra entertainment. Evenings of meals, meetings in the large room across from our cabin to debrief and plan the next day, occasional videos. Most days, after dinner but before our meetings, I'd be inputting data, while Sofie and Ilse spent an hour or so on the roof of the ship's bridgedeck, recording the behaviour of pups. Bjørn and Nils Eric found Sofie and Ilse incomprehensible - they chose to spend extra time – drinking time - out in the cold. And, for all possible reasons, to watch pups' behaviour.

Life for the crew was different. We were hardly moving, the ice presented no real threats, so the ship was secure. The crew's workload was drastically reduced, so the captain seized the opportunity to catch up with some maintenance. Empty cabins were repainted. Some of Lance's crew were itching to get out on the ice.

The weather was warming, we had a little more sunlight each day. Some larger stretches of water appeared between floes. Pups were losing their white coats.

Tore contacted Kjell regularly. They were flying - mostly from Jan Mayen - checking for any other whelping patches. There weren't any more. Over beers in the evening, Tore and Garry's discussions on when to run the final helicopter survey got serious.

We'd been out tagging, one of those afternoons with Lance below the horizon, hours of seals and ice. Callan and I always made for the bow, entered the covered fo'csle to a lab where we'd wash our woollen gloves then drop them in some detergent to soak overnight. We'd slip down the companionway to the storage area below, ditch our floater suits and Sorrel boots, pull on some sandshoes, head back towards Lance's centre. Callan made for his room, I climbed up the steps to our cabin. Sofie was waiting there, mouth drawn, eyes hard.


“What is it?”, I asked.

She snorted, tipped her head, eyes pointing to the stern. “Look at this.”.

It was only a few yards, past Tore's cabin, to the door opening to the stern. As we stepped out, Sofie pointed to something hanging from the metal pipes that crisscrossed the deck's roofed areas. A few scrawny little black-red corpses, the meat cut from them, hung downwards. In a corner, a pile of dirty white pelts lay in a heap.

“They've been shooting”, she said.

She turned, walked back to our cabin, sat on the lower bunk. “So, are you going to say something to Tore?”, she asked.

“And say what? He gets permits to shoot hundreds of fucking seals each year. He'll have an excuse for it. Saying anything will just make life difficult for the rest of the time we're out here.”.

Sofie frowned.

Norwegian sealers aren't allowed to hunt whitecoat pups, so white pelts are rarities now. It's one remaining success from earlier anti-sealing campaigns. The crew were getting bored, so Tore had indulged them by allowing them to shoot a few whitecoats.

Genetic samples, apparently.

Had anyone asked for genetic samples, we'd have brought back chunks of afterbirth that would have served just as well. We'd even have brought back the carcasses of pups that had died naturally. No-one ever asked, of course.

The following night, seal pup stew appeared for dinner. Dark, pungent, purple-brown meat in thick gravy. Thankfully, the cook had the decency to offer another choice (veggie lasagne, as Ilse was vegetarian) for those of us who couldn't stomach pup stew.

A few days later, we were heading down from the helicopter deck again. Sofie and Ilse left, Callan and I sorted out some gear. Finished, we made for our cabins. Sofie and Ilse were standing on the walkway of the boat deck, looking forward. Ilse seemed pale, like she was about to throw up. Sofie looked ready to explode.

“What's up?”, I asked.

“Have a look. Lotta just told Ilse that the guys were playing with a female hooded seal on the front deck”.

Playing indeed. Someone had shot a big female hood, and the crew were butchering and skinning her on the deck. Dark blood spread everywhere, pooled into the ice slush. Callan and I walked down, stepped around the carcass. We left a trail of bloody bootprints into the fo'csle.

I worked through my cleaning ritual – gloves washed, grubby gear off, (and blood washed off boots for a special addition), wandered back. Sofie was standing outside Tore's cabin. I caught “we didn't expect to see this shooting......”, saw the half-smile on Tore's face, looking down on Sofie, as I walked into our cabin.

Luckily, it was time to run the final helicopter survey over our whelping patch, and everyone was too busy for a couple of days for anything else. Shoot more seals, for instance. The conditions stayed fine, clear skies and almost no wind. We'd been impossibly lucky with weather. The helicopter survey went as near to perfect as these things ever go.

All that was left was for Kjell to fly the photographic survey. The weather stayed awesome - clear, sunny and calm, but we'd seen no sign of the plane for a few days. Kjell was working out of Jan Mayen, but the dirt strip there was muddy and unusable. Local rain.

Late one morning, Callan, Garry and I were out tagging seals. We still couldn't believe our luck with the weather, blue skies with no wind. It was to dream of in the Arctic, and there was no way it was going to last forever. The hours passed, we tagged dozens of pups, but something was clearly bugging Garry. He kept looking up and around. Finally, he pulled out the radio, called Tore.

“Tore, can you get on the phone to Jan Mayen, ask Kjell what's happening to the plane”.

A few minutes later, Tore called back. Garry listened, nodded, coloured. “Okay”.

“What's the score?” I asked.

“They had a party last night at Jan Mayen. Kjell isn't even up yet.”. It was getting on to midday.

Alcohol is tax-free on Jan Mayen.

Kjell ran the photographic survey a couple of days later.
Read the final part of this post here.

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West Ice survey 2002:VI


Read the first part of this post here.
Harp seal hunting has burgeoned over the past few years. Back in 2002, the hunt of the population we were surveying was small – a couple of thousand animals at most. Almost all publicity is on the Canadian hunt, but there are four different hunts on three separate populations of harp seals. The biggest, most famous, population (and hunt) of harp seals is found in the waters between eastern Canada and Greenland. Another group of harp seals breeds on the ice off the eastern side of Greenland, and lives in the Arctic Ocean, between Greenland, Iceland and Svalbard. A third population lives in the Barents Sea, and gives birth on the ice off northwest Russia.

Over three years in the early 21st Century, Canadian sealers killed nearly three-quarters of a million harp seals, all under a government quota. Once again, Canadians can claim the biggest hunt of marine mammals in the world. But Canada is not alone. In 2005, more Norwegian sealing boats headed to sea than at any time in the past two decades. In Norway, there's talk of offering “quota bonuses” - higher quotas for the fish that they catch over the rest of the year – to fishermen who are prepared to risk tearing their vessels open in the pack ice to get to seals - or who'll risk the financial and fuel costs of ice-strengthening their boats. There have even been calls in Norway for a return to hunting whitecoat pups.

Harp seal hunting never really went away; it just dropped from public view. Since 1970, in the years for which hunt data are reliable (there are a few glitches in the records), there was no year where people killed less than 100,000 harp seals.

Most of the harp seals killed are from the largest population, off the Canadian coast. These days, most killing is done by Canadians. But in decades past, Norwegians were the main players. Other hunts take place off the east Greenland coast, (the “West Ice” to Norwegians, where we were on this trip), off the White Sea (the “East Ice” to Norwegians), and off western Greenland. Norwegians and Russians (or Soviets, in times past) hunted seals off the West Ice and East Ice. Now the West Ice hunt is all Norwegian, the White Sea hunt mostly Russian, but Norwegians have moved back there recently. Greenlanders hunt mainly off west Greenland.

Despite receiving the most publicity, the Canadian hunt of harp seals hasn't always been the biggest. For example in 1985, just under 20,000 harp seals were killed in the smallest Canadian hunt on record. Yet a total of over 120,000 harp seals were killed that year, over 80,000 in the East Ice, and more than 20,000 by Greenlanders. And the real number of seals killed is always greater than the records show. The quoted numbers are the size of the catch that is “landed” – brought back to port. There are always some seals that are mortally wounded and not recovered - not “landed” - so these numbers of dead seals are all underestimates.

The government agencies tasked with regulating seal hunts need to know something about the populations being hunted. Enter scientists. Estimates of animal abundance have to come from somewhere, and there's a little more to counting animals than taking your shoes off once you've seen ten. Grand plans for “managing” animals amount to nothing if there aren't people with the scientific nous and physical capacity to work out how many animals actually exist. Off the West Ice, that includes working in one of the most extreme settings our planet has to offer.

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West Ice survey 2002:V



Read the first part of this post here.

We were surrounded by thousands of young pups, lying on ice. We'd found our home for the voyage.

Most mums were in the water when we'd get to their pan, a few stayed, watched us suspiciously, then glomp into the water. Up close, adult female harp seals are big enough - Labrador faces, rottweiler teeth, more mass than us but built for swimming. Solids belong to us, liquid to them, so they were slower on the ice, than we were. But not by much. The occasional mum took offence at molestation of her pup. So one of us tagged, quick as possible, another kept mum away.

Our hakapiks were on long birch poles, so we'd fence with the mothers. Some used cunning plans – swooshing out somewhere different each time, circuiting the pan, looking for an opening. Or the direct approach, a mum just charged us, teeth bared. Poke poke poke back, trying not to hit her too hard: deter-hard, not injure-hard. An interesting balance. We had a few near misses with their big canine teeth, but not even a tear to a floater suit. One or two mums were just up-front aggressive. There was no deter-hard, they just kept on coming. We weren't prepared to risk seriously injuring a mother just to tag her pup, so we left them alone.

As the days passed, life on the patch changed. Males appeared more and more, with their broader, bigger, heavier heads; darker chocolate brown upper bodies. They'd cruise in groups of a dozen or so, watching us, doggy faces, bobbing, damp hand puppets in the open water between the pans. The water was crystal. Males displayed, look-at-me underwater swoops, we'd lean over the edge of a pan to watch. They'd hang around in the biggest patches of open water.

Male calls sang through the water, into the air for us to hear. Their calls were shorter, more varied than the bearded seals in Svalbard. When we took a coffee and chocolate break with Sofie and Ilse, they'd drop in a hydrophone, we'd take turned listening.


Were the males singing to females - pick me, pick me, pick me; or were these just warnings to other males? We weren't in a position to resolve that one. Harp seal society remains a mystery.

Females in their tens of thousands were nearing the end of nursing. Pups filled out, firm teddy bodies, Greenpeace poster-child eyes. Ludicrously cute. Some started losing their trademark white fur. Stronger, wrigglier, some became quicker across the ice, others too fat to worry, just a bleat as the tag clipped in, then back to resting and growing.

The weather stayed good – we were out almost every day. The bliss of activity. No thinking beyond finding the next pup, planning a route across the floes to reach it, watching for angry mums, catching. Locating the next cluster of pups. Keeping warm, gloves off to tag, back on fast. We tagged carefully, trying not to draw blood from pups. The icescape changed with the days, Lance lying still in the ice, drifting.

After dinner on Lance, Lotta or Nils Eric would give me their day's data sheets, I'd input the data from tagging – the sex and stage of each of dozens of pups, their tag number – into a spreadsheet. Depending on how the day went, an hour or so of input, then some more time rechecking. Finished, I'd join the others for a beer to discuss the day's work.

The records were needed for when the tags were returned. A returned tag would mean a dead seal, either drowned in fishing gear or killed by hunters.

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West Ice survey 2002:IV



Read the first part of this post here
Those forays on the floes, although enormous fun, were really an aside. We had to be out on the ice for a few weeks, but only needed a few days for the aerial surveys. So tagging was useful, but not the primary objective of the expedition. Our main task was to fly over the whelping patches of females and count newborn pups.

The harp seals that meet off east Greenland are wanderers of the Arctic Atlantic. After giving birth in the West Ice, they either swim north along Greenland's east coast, east to Svalbard; or to Iceland and points south - some almost to Scotland's Western Isles - with occasional forays to the Norwegian coast. The only time all members of the population seem to get together is at pupping. Even then, the males are mostly underwater, females often in the water, and only the pups stay on ice floes.

This means that pups are the most reliable animals to count. That was why we had the helicopter, to fly transects - regularly spaced lines - over each patch in order to estimate the number of pups born. But there's a catch (in field biology, there's always a catch). All harp seals in a population give birth over a short period in March and April - exactly when varies between the three separate Arctic populations. Generally, the females in an individual whelping patch all give birth within two weeks of each other. Harp pups suckle for less than two weeks - the average is 12 days. Towards the end of those 12 days, pups moult their trademark white fur, replace it with their adult coat, and start contemplating their future as swimmers, rather than ice floe couch-potatoes. This means that once pups have moulted their white fur, there's no guarantee that they'll stay on the ice. Getting the survey timing right – including allowing for weather and pups' maturation – is the crucial balancing act of the exercise.

While they're suckling, pups change size and shape so quickly that it's possible to estimate their age to within a couple of days. Seal biologists have developed a system for categorizing pups into seven stages of these first few days of life, based on how they look. So, by flying a series of surveys using the helicopter, in which we estimate the stages of each pup seen, we could get a quick-and-dirty overview of the relative age of the pups there. Additionally, we recorded the stage of every pup that we tagged when we were out on the ice. Between the “staging surveys” as Garry called them (they're a Canadian invention), and our tagging data we had a pretty good sense of the age of pups in a patch.

Initially, we'd see many tiny white pups, lots of fresh-frozen meaty afterbirths, and some very satisfied looking gulls. After a few days, newborns became less common. We had to make some tradeoffs with timing for running a counting survey - flying over the patch to estimate the number of pups born, as distinct from the staging surveys – too early, and there'd be pregnant females with pups still to be born, too late and the some pups could have already taken to the water. And of course, we needed to think about weather and safety, too.

The Arctic's like that.

It was time to prepare for the counting survey, to work out our observers' strip widths.

We needed to know the area covered by each transect – the length was easily calculated from GPS-derived start and stop points, but width is slightly more complex. Strip width, from simple geometry, depends on the height that the helicopter flies – higher gives a wider strip, but fly too high and pups get hard to see. This is the most simple form of what's known in the trade as distance sampling - the observers should be able to reliably count every pup that is within the strip, and so there to be counted. If the area through the helicopter window was too large, pups would be missed.

Once our strip width was established, we'd know the area (transect length multiplied by strip width) that we'd sampled. As we also knew the total area occupied by all the seals in the whelping patch, we could calculate the proportion of the patch that we'd sampled. From years of experience, the Canadians worked with a strip of 30 metres when the helicopter flew at 100 feet.

Ivan and I were the observers. We needed to get our 30 metre strips marked out. So, Ivan Tore, Garry and I jumped in the helicopter and flew out to some large pans well away from any seals. We checked there were no polar bears around (as we hadn't brought rifles), then landed. Tore and Garry got out with a measuring tape. They marked out two strips, 30 metres apart, then lay inside them, doing seal impersonations. Ivan and I were taken to 100 feet above the ice - the helicopter had an altimeter that used a laser for measurement, so we knew it was accurate. Then we made ourselves as comfortable as possible while turned sideways in a helicopter seat, and nursing an old laptop computer. One at a time, we directed the pilot until the lower strip on the ground was just blocked by the helicopter's lower skid, then marked off the top line with a bit of electrical tape on the window. Field biology survives on electrical tape, duct tape and cable ties. We retrieved our seal impersonators and flew back to Lance.

And then Garry, Ivan and I practised. Our laptops were linked to a GPS receiver, with a little program (courtesy of one of Garry's computer wizards) written so that whenever we pressed the keyboard, it stored a position fix from the GPS. Unfortunately, it only worked on Windows 98 machines, so we'd had to drag out a couple of somewhat antique laptops for the trip. Ivan and I had to tap a key to record each time we saw a harp seal pup. As well, we'd call out our sightings as we made them, into the microphones of the aircraft headsets that we all wore. Garry recorded our numbers into a notebook as backup to the computers.

All my previous experience with strip transects had been with whales, dolphins or dugongs1 – mammals in the ocean, with an unfortunate habit of diving, and so being mostly out of view. To me, counting animals that lay stationary on the ice seemed a bit like cheating. A few practice runs and we were ready for the real thing.

These visual surveys from the helicopter don't provide a permanent record of the seals we actually saw. So, Kjell and his crew in the plane were also going to fly over each patch. As the plane had an aerial photogrammetric camera aboard, they could photograph a series of transects over the whelping patches as well. Photographs provide a permanent record of the survey. The concept is exactly the same as the helicopter counts, except that the photos create their own strips.

As the time neared to run the full survey on the first patch we found, Kjell radioed to announce that from the plane they'd found another, far larger patch a few hours' steam to the west. Lance's engines came back to life for a few hours.

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West Ice survey 2002:III

Read the first part of this post here

The A team - now Nils Eric, Bjørn, Lotta and Ivan - made their first trips onto the ice. Tore, coffee in hand, coordinated activities from Lance's bridge.
Garry was the only one of the B team with ice-floe-hopping experience, so for the first few hours, Garry showed we novices how to get around.
Moving on the pans was all about avoiding falling in. With the water at –2C, the air at -10C, a dunk in the water would have meant calling for the helicopter to get us back to the ship to dry out. The biggest pans got to more than 50 metres diameter, the smallest, little ice cubes. With a big swell running, pans drift apart, tripling the jumping distance between them.

We had unusual tools to help us hold and steady smaller floes. Back in Tromsø, Nils Eric had collected birch poles to make a few hakapiks1, Norwegian seal clubs - a black steel head on a birch pole. The pole's a little over five feet long. On one side of the metal head is a short knob, used to smash in the skulls of baby seals. The other end of the head has a spike, about six inches long, used by sealers to drag carcasses along the ice. The spike is great for whacking into ice, dragging pans as needed. So we'd swing, lean and haul, everyone across, then whoever held the hakapik jumped. Mostly we just hopped, pan to pan. Timing was all, particularly when a small chunk had to be used for a stepping stone. Being stuck on a sinking chunk of oversized slushie, watching more solid ice move beyond jumping range could be a little disconcerting.

After a couple of excursions, Bjørn's decades on the ice started to tell and he spent most of the time in his cabin. The A team, morphed into Nils Eric, Lotta, and Ivan, were more aggressive with their icehopping and had a couple of drenchings. The legs of our floater suits were reasonably watertight, and the suits were made so that you needed to be immersed almost to your underarms before water could spill into the suit from the top. Even so, Nils Eric and Lotta occasionally needed a helicopter pickup after a particularly deep mishap. We novices were far more cautious.

Garry, Callan and I would wander off, tagging pups. Sofie and Ilse moved less, as their recordings required more time with each pup. They'd find one, a little away from where we were tagging, and record its calls. They needed several from each pup – the demands of statistics. So they'd lie out next to a pup, trying to look inconspicuous in their bright orange floater suits, and stick a microphone as close as they could to the pup, and hope the pup felt like calling. Tore christened them “the pup interviewers”.


Female harp seals spend some of their time in the water, so to find their pup - the ice keeps moving – they must listen for them. Once they've located their pup's general direction, they slip onto the appropriate floe, and check any pups there either by their scent, or by their feel. To do this, the mum goes up to a pup and rubs noses – either smelling up close, or using the bristles around their nose to feel for something distinctive about their particular pup. It looks just like mums greet their pup with a kiss.

Just in case the pups, by themselves, weren't cute enough.

Garry's experience meant that he led from the start. But as he was also the heaviest, physics provided our verb of the trip: Stensoning. To Stenson was to push hard off a small chunk of ice, leaving the next unfortunate dealing with a half-submerged iceblob, calling, “Oh No! I've been Stensoned!”. After a few days, Garry made a habit of bringing up the rear.

The days passed, and Garry needed to spend some time on the ship, sorting out the design of the helicopter surveys with Tore. Callan and I worked together. Callan was lighter and braver than I. He tended to lead the way when Ilse and Sofie were near us, finding the safest and easiest routes. He overdid it badly once – stepped onto a small chunk, maybe two feet square. Immediately half of it collapsed into the sea. Callan was waiting for the swell to bring the next large pan close to him. He turned, laughed, said, “Well, don’t stand on that bit”. As he did, the leftover that he was standing on (just big enough for his feet) disappeared into slush under him. He dropped, eyes widening as he went. I reached out, grabbed his arm, pulled. He was only wet to his knees. Sofie and Ilse took care of Callan, dragging his boots off, drying his feet, replacing his socks with dry ones, filling him with chocolate and coffee. We sat around until we knew he'd be dry enough to keep going, then found another path.

When it came to icehopping, I guess I was lucky. On one of our first days out, I had a sad moment on some slush. I'd gone last, and the stepping-stone piece of ice was looking a little Stensoned after Garry and Callan had traversed it. There was a big swell running, pans moving three or four yards away from each other. I jumped onto the stepping slush, and it started sinking. I'd timed it badly, the next pan was still moving away. Seconds passed, spent waiting for the swells to bring the next big pan towards me. Seconds can seem rather long. Water rose over the rubberised soles of my Sorrels, started seeping under the legs of my floater suit. Eventually I could jump. After that learning experience, I seem to manage to jump – fall, lurch, blob, roll - the right way. Hardly ever got my feet wet. It's amazing how important dry socks are.

Sofie and Ilse never had any serious problems. Perhaps I could pretend that this had something to do with chivalry from us men, but I'd be lying. They were light, sensible and athletic.

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