Snow Babies of the Magdalen Islands

TEARS filled my eyes as I stared at the furry white creature directly in front of me. Fulfilling a 20-year dream, I could hardly believe I was actually there, sprawled out on the ice literally inches from a tiny harp seal’s face! As I gazed into its coal-black eyes, a chill ran up my spine​—not from the ice but from the sheer excitement of the experience. I did not want to miss a single blink, breath, or whisker twitch of this little fur ball before me.

Our tour group was 70 miles [100 km] out on an enormous ice floe in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, between Newfoundland and the Canadian mainland. My wife and I had flown to the Magdalen Islands, near the whelping grounds of the harp seals’ largest herd. Our guides had assured us that our fluorescent-orange insulated suits would not frighten the baby seals.

What Is a Harp Seal?

Harp seals are pinnipeds, meaning that they have flippers for limbs. The name harp seal comes from the distinct harplike pattern on the back of the adults.

Harp seals are mammals, so they breathe air, give live birth, and have mammary glands for nursing their young. They spend most of their time in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. But  these hearty seals are well-equipped to cope with their icy habitat. Adults average 300 pounds [135 kg] and grow to about five and a half feet [1.6 m] in length.

With their sharp front claws, harp seals can pull themselves across the ice and cling to breathing holes scratched through the ice cap. Their hind flippers are larger than their front flippers and are used primarily for propulsion. Remarkably agile in the water, these pelagic creatures may travel up to 5,000 miles [8,000 km] in a year.

Harp seals are called earless seals, but this does not mean that they are deaf. Instead of having external ears, the harp seal has a small hole on each side of its head. They close when the seal submerges. Harp seals have keen hearing. They can pinpoint a sound source underwater​—something that humans cannot do!

The eyes of harp seals are large and prominent, enabling them to see well in the dim light underwater. In the bright glare on the ice, their pupils contract to a vertical slit, allowing them to see comfortably there too.

 Life as a Pup

In the herd we observed, the females had come down from Greenland past Northern Canada to whelp. Their floating ice nursery serves as a protection against predators. Pups are delivered quite rapidly, often within one minute! By the time you get your camera ready, the new pup may already be staring up at you! Immediately after delivery the mother turns around and lines up nose to nose with her newborn. She is memorizing, or imprinting, the unique smell and sound of her pup. Thereafter, she will nurse this pup​—and no other—​for about two weeks.

Baby harp seals quickly search for nourishment from Mama’s teats. When hungry, the pups sound as if they were crying, “Ma, Ma.” After eating, they wedge themselves into a crevice in the snow and ice for a nap. By repeatedly sleeping in the same spot, their body forms a cozy “ice cradle.”

At birth, harp seals usually weigh about 22 pounds [10 kg] and are about 36 inches [90 cm] long. At first, they have no blubber to keep them warm, but this changes quickly! During the first 12 days or so, harp seals gain from three to five pounds [from one to two kilograms] per day. Their rapid  growth is the result of their mother’s rich milk, which consists of up to 50 percent fat. * In less than two weeks, a pup will weigh in at a whopping 80 pounds [35 kg]!

Changing Colors

You can easily estimate the age of a harp seal pup by the color of its pelt. By the end of its first day, a newborn pup dries off, revealing a fluffy coat. Now the pup is called a yellowcoat. The yellowish color is from the amniotic fluid and fades in the sunshine within three or four days. Once the yellow disappears, the pup is called a whitecoat. After some two weeks, Mom disappears and never returns.

The pups call out, but their cries go unheeded. Sometimes, seeking comfort, the pups crawl toward one another and gather in small groups on the ice. Soon gray patches start to appear on their white fur. Days 12 through 21, they are transformed into graycoats and then, by the end of their first month, into ragged jackets. By this time, all the furry white hair has fallen out and has been replaced by a sleek, gray waterproof coat.

Beaters and Bedlamers

Harp seal pups survive by living off their own fat until hunger finally forces them into the water in search of food. But, alas, when they enter the water, their fat, buoyant bodies  won’t sink! Instinctively they beat their little flippers, splashing on top of the water. Hence, at this stage they are called beaters. All this activity strengthens their flippers for swimming. At the same time, it burns off fat and eventually reduces their buoyancy to the point where they can submerge. Now their raging appetite can be satisfied, for the waters teem with krill, as well as capelin and other small fish.

At one year of age, the seals molt and are called bedlamers. At three to seven years, they become sexually mature, and they are easily identified by the harp design on their back. The harp seal may live up to 35 years.

A Face-to-Face Encounter

After donning our survival suits and making sure we have warmer packs for our boots and hands, 17 of us board helicopters and fly about 50 miles [80 km]. Looking down, all we can see in every direction is a sparkling-white icescape fading to a blue horizon. Finally, we touch down on the frozen sea. We strap on our cleats and trek out as quietly as the crunchy surface under our feet will allow. Look! Behind that mother is a fluffy snow baby​—a yellowcoat! It resembles a large, furry inchworm struggling to keep up with its mama. For me, it is love at first sight!

I lie down on the ice, since standing might cause a seal to mistake me for a polar bear. Mother seals can be quite aggressive, so I wait for the one I am watching to go down into a hole in the ice. Her little pup, whom I have named Sadie, is sleeping peacefully about 20 feet [6 m] away from me. I crawl closer and closer. Her eyes slowly open.

Now Sadie’s eyes are firmly fixed on me. I scarcely move a muscle. Suddenly, Sadie wants to investigate! She wiggles toward me a lot faster than I thought she could. She looks so big coming toward me, yet it seems by the color of her pelt that she is only two or three days old. Sadie halts just inches from my face and slowly sways from side to side while twitching her little nose. I can hear her sniffing. She comes right up and graces me with little wet “kisses” all over my face and neck!

Amazingly, this beautiful little baby cuddles up next to me and falls asleep! She even allows me to rest my hand gently on top of her. Her soft little hairs are sticking up between my fingers. I am surprised at how warm she feels. I stroke and cuddle Sadie until it is time to board the helicopter to go back home. Sadie does not move as I quietly rise.

I tearfully walk away in awe, silently thanking our God, Jehovah, for creating this gorgeous little creature. To have an encounter with a baby harp seal seemed nothing short of miraculous. This experience causes me to recall the words of the psalmist: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. . . . As for this sea so great and wide, there there are moving things without number, living creatures, small as well as great.” (Psalm 104:24, 25)​—Contributed.

[Footnote]

^ par. 13 By comparison, a dairy cow’s milk is 4 percent fat.

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Did You Know?

▪ When threatened with severe storms or unfavorable ice conditions, female harp seals can delay giving birth for several days while they look for a suitable location.

▪ Harp seals can dive 800 feet [240 m] and can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes.

▪ Seals can sleep underwater. Every five to ten minutes, they raise their head above the water to take a breath. Then they sink back below the surface​—without waking up!

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Delayed Implantation

“Except for three weeks of each year,” notes the book Seasons of the Seal, “an adult female harp seal is always pregnant. Her true gestation period lasts seven and a half months.” How can this be? “After conception,” the book explains, “the fertilized ovum divides, divides again and again, and then stops. The blastocyst, still smaller than a pinhead, ceases to grow. It floats in its mother’s womb, a mote of suspended life. Eleven weeks later, the blastocyst implants and resumes active growth.” The apparent reason for the delayed implantation? “It is imperative that she have pups at nearly exact one-year intervals so birth will coincide with the maximum extent and thickness of the breeding ice.”

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CANADA

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Map: Mountain High Maps® Copyright © 1997 Digital Wisdom, Inc.

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Satellite photo of the Magdalen Islands

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NASA JSC

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Yellowcoat

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Whitecoat

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Ragged jacket

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© IFAW/David White

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Beater

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© IFAW

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A harp seal pup with its mother

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© IFAW/Igor Gavrilov

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An adult harp seal swims beneath a thick layer of ice

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© IFAW