This Baby Seal Safari Is the Reason You Have to Go To Canada Next Winter
It's the trip to Canada that just might beat Banff or the Northern Lights.
Clad in bright orange survival suits, we tumble out of four helicopters and scramble across a patch of floating pack ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in hot pursuit of one of the cutest marine mammal babies on the planet. The yellow-white lumps should be hard to see but they’re squirming so they stand out on the jagged landscape of pure white snow. Some are emitting gut-wrenching, primal sounds that are a cross between a newborn baby and a mewling kitten. The first one we gather around is with its mom and safely back from the precarious edge where melting sea ice meets frigid ocean water.
The winter gloves come off. The cameras come out. The Canadian seal pup adventure begins.
We’ve got about an hour with the “whitecoats,” give or take the helicopter pilots blowing emergency whistles to say the weather is changing and we must leave immediately. How lucky are we to be here, near Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, in a narrow window between yesterday’s extreme fog and tonight’s big winter storm? We are among the 150 people who get to experience harp seal birthing grounds each year.
My first dozen shots are a mess because I trip in the snow and don’t notice the icy crystals on my lens. Clearly, it’s a sign to just enjoy the seals and not worry about getting a “sealfie.”
As the 20-odd guests fan out to observe other baby seals, I park myself near a captivating mother-and-child duo. This writhing baby seal reminds me of that stage when human babies roll over, lie on their bellies and lift their heads but can’t coordinate sitting or crawling. Mama seal, a plump beauty with splotchy grey-brown skin, shoots me a few dirty looks but otherwise tolerates me marvelling at her impressive spawn.
Thanks to the Château Madelinot, which runs these harp seal nursery trips, I’m well versed in the Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations connected to this “seal fishery observation.” No touching or feeding these wild animals, stay 30 feet from adults because they can be aggressive, and never walk between a mom and pup. Don’t wander off alone and beware of thin or black ice, cracks, pressure peaks and open water. The Mustang survival suits will help us float and stave off hypothermia if we fall in, but we are 45 minutes from shore.
Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine is an archipelago of about a dozen islands, including six that are linked by long, thin sand dunes. Known as the Magdalen Islands or the “Maggies,” they’re a short plane ride east of Quebec City or a five-hour ferry north from Prince Edward Island. The archipelago is home to about 12,500 mainly French-speaking residents. That number swells to 30,000 in the summer. A salt mine produces road salt, but fishing and tourism are top industries. There are restaurants, museums, boutiques, a small shopping mall, brewery, fish smokehouse and cheesemaker here, but the real draws are white sand beaches, whale-watching trips and water activities.
The Château Madelinot has hosted baby seal trips for nearly 40 years, ever since guests heard about the newborns and asked to see them. The top market is Japan because Japanese wildlife photographer Rei Ohara has been coming for decades and has published multiple photo books, and because the popular anime TV show Shounen Ashibe follows the life of a kid and his pet seal Goma-chan.
“People want to come and see the real Goma-chan,” explains the hotel’s communications director Ariane Bérubé, whose business card includes an Ohara photo of her kneeling beside a baby seal. “We are the only ones in the world doing this.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada says a “healthy and abundant” population of 7.4 million harp seals lives in the Northwest Atlantic. The seals summer in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland. They migrate south every fall and separate into three herds in either the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador to breed and give birth on the ice.
The Gulf herd, which breeds near the Magdalen Islands, numbers in the tens of thousands.
Adults are big— about 5 feet long and 285 to 330 pounds — and typically live 25 to 40 years. Females spend the entire year pregnant and give birth on stable sea ice between late February and mid-March. Newborns weigh about 24 pounds and get just 12 days of breastfeeding before the moms abandon them to mate and repeat the cycle.
The proper French word for seal is phoque. (Go ahead, make your dirty jokes.) But most Francophones call them loups marins (sea wolves), a nod to the fact these voracious predators feed on shrimp, prawns, crustaceans and fish.
Those haunting cries I heard on the ice were probably hungry moans.
Sometimes there are hundreds or thousands of baby seals on the ice. My trip is just days into the season and so there are only a handful that we have to share—and they are spread out. People race from seal to seal, but I move away from the mom and baby and over to a yellowish newborn who’s on its own while mom bobs in the water. The baby’s white fur has a yellow hue because it’s still tinged with amniotic fluid. I spot a bloody umbilical cord frozen in the snow.
National Geographic just declared trips to the Magdalen Islands for seal pup observation one of the best 25 trips to take in 2020, either by helicopter day trip or live-aboard boat expedition. But it’s important to be mindful of climate change.
The Château Madelinot’s 2010 season was cancelled because an extended warm front dramatically diminished ice formation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and made it unsafe for the helicopters to safely land. The 2011, 2016 and 2017 seasons were also wiped out due to strong winds and above-average temperatures. Now the hotel makes sure guests understand that wildlife experiences can never be guaranteed. It sells three- and six-night packages—to boost the odds of everybody getting out once to see the seals—and doesn’t ask for deposits. You pay when you arrive.
The hotel has 116 rooms but limits the seal observation trips to 150 guests. The 2020 season ran from Feb. 22 to March 10 with all-inclusive packages for one person starting at $2,100 U.S. for three nights. Reservations for next year will open in July.
When the stars align, the helicopters make three, three-hour excursions a day, travelling together to be safe. It takes us about 45 minutes to fly to the patch of ice deemed large and stable enough to land on. Canadian Helicopters pilot Alex Villeneuve gets us back to the hotel safely, but the next flight is cancelled as a storm sweeps in. Ditto all three flights the next day.
I chat up Hiroshi Takenawa, a tourist from Tokyo, as we wiggle out of our survival suits.
“The babies are very cute,” Takenawa enthuses, before correcting himself. “They’re not simply cute—they were too cute for me. I was almost crying.” I don’t have the heart to tell him the babies will surely die when the coming storm destroys their icy homes.
Takenawa has dreamed about this trip for five years after seeing Ohara’s photos on the internet. He has already been to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories for the northern lights and Banff, Alberta to see the mountains, but says this Quebec trip tops both those Canadian experiences.
I suspect Takenawa won’t dig any deeper than just the warm, fuzzy, harp seal nursery outing, but I’m here to find out what seals really mean to islanders.
It’s a few days too soon for Rendez-Vous Loup Marin, a nine-day festival that includes seal-inspired films and the sale of croxignoles (braided donuts fried in seal fat that I will have to try another time). So it’s off to two museums that celebrate the island’s complicated history with seals.
Centre d’interprétation du phoque (Seal Interpretation Center) owner Robert St-Onge explains that seals have been hunted here for hundreds of years. The winter hunt—both commercial and subsistence—is regulated with permits and quotas.
It has been illegal to hunt newborn “whitecoats” since 1987. It’s also illegal to hunt on the seal breeding/whelping grounds. Hunters do target seals that have been weaned, just as lamb and veal come from animals that are just weeks or months old.
Seal, explains museum guide Vanessa Ouellet, was once “a survival meat” and the only available winter protein. Now supermarkets offer all the usual proteins, but many locals want to keep seal culinary traditions alive.
Upstairs at the interpretation center, there’s a display celebrating local seal specialties plus a small fishing boat, gear used for sealing and details about how the Omega-3-rich food, oil, leather and fur sustained generations.
There’s even a corner devoted to the painful time when French actress/animal activist Brigitte Bardot came with Greenpeace in 1977 to challenge the seal hunt and was photographed with a whitecoat. Sir Paul McCartney, the billionaire ex-Beatle, and his then wife Heather came in 2006, famously described the hunt as a “stain on the Canadian people” and suggested that commercial sealers find other ways to earn a living. They, too, posed with whitecoats, perpetuating the myth that the photogenic newborns are hunted.
As the anti-sealing momentum built, the European Union banned the commercial trade of seal products in 2009. It was a devastating blow to the Inuit who have long hunted, eaten and worn seal in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut, as well as to Newfoundland and Quebec sealers.
“Thirty years ago, and everyone on the planet said `You are bad people,’” remembers Ouellet, pointing to a photo of Bardot among a collage of newspaper headlines and editorial cartoons calling the Islanders butchers.
At Musée de la Mer (Museum of the Sea), the focus is on the fisheries and early island life, but there is some talk of seals and a culinary exhibit that details “the seal on our plate,” with photos of charcuterie and local quotes. Some people eat it and some don’t, admits Alissa Brunetti, project manager for Le Bon Goût Frais des Îles de la Madeleine, which put the exhibit together to celebrate local food traditions.
“I eat it because it tastes great (and for fritters in seal oil), and to support our hunters,” reads one quote.
“To me it tastes like 50% red meat and 50% fish,” reads another. “Like fish with an aftertaste of beef blood. Not my thing.”
“I would eat it more often if I knew how to cook it properly,” laments another islander. “Let’s just say there are not that many recipes you can google.”
Which brings us to Réjean Vigneau of Boucherie Spécialisée Côte à Côte. He has a special commercial license to harvest and butcher seals and is a pro at removing unpleasant tasting fat from the lean, dark red meat. “If you don’t take it off, it will destroy the quality of the meat.”
Vigneau transforms local and Newfoundland seal into steaks, brochettes and jerky plus sausage, pâté and rillettes (shredded meat slow cooked in fat), often adding fatty pork to make things more palatable. A poster at his shop details all the cuts of a seal, just like the charts you see for beef, pork or lamb.
I spot Vigneau’s seal products in the local supermarket, and try his burger dressed up with smoked duck, local cheese, Dijon sauce, lettuce and tomatoes at Les Pas Perdus restaurant. I desperately want to love it but have to admit it’s a little too pungent and unfamiliar even for me. I much preferred the time a Greenlandic Inuit woman “flensed” a seal on cardboard on the ground in her fishing village and let me sample raw heart and blubber. And I loved the intense meat when a friend brought me frozen Magdalen seal steaks and I pan-seared them just a shade past rare and smothered them with a sour cherry and honey sauce.
When seal pops up occasionally on Canadian restaurants menus, tempers flare, protests launch and it’s impossible to explain to urbanites what seals mean to the Inuit in northern Canada and to others in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Magdalen Islands who have long hunted it, eaten it and used its fur for clothing.
When I leave the Magdalens, it’s with a wheel of artisan cheese and not with frozen seal meat. Fromagerie du Pied-de-Vent, which creates artisan cheese from local cow milk, makes a mild, Camembert-like cheese named Jeune-Coeur to honour young harp seals. Its label shows two whitecoats frolicking on the ice with the Magdalens looming in the background.
The Chateau Madelinot only sells seal stuffies, pillows and paintings during the baby seal photo safari season. At Atelier Cōtier, Pauline-Gervaise Grēgoire sells seal-shaped fridge magnets and tic-tac-toe sculptures with black and white seals, both made of hardened sand. These are good options for Americans who can’t bring seal products home under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
But for Canadians, and others who face no such restrictions, gift shops at both of the island’s museums sell gorgeous hats and mittens made by Rachel Drouin Création with sealskin accents.
It was “love at first sight” when the artist discovered seal and started incorporating it into things like headbands, jewelry, bags, wallets and slippers. “I have the pleasure of working with an inspiring, available, abundant and local material to make unique and sustainable products that suit our climate,” enthuses Drouin. “The Madelinots are proud to wear seal products and they are, for me, precious ambassadors.”
Not everyone that comes to these little-known Quebec islands for a once-in-a-lifetime baby seal experience will be comfortable discovering that seal is also hunted, eaten and worn here, but I came prepared to learn and understand. I head home with three of Drouin’s pieces, a wheel of cheese, a whack of safari photos and memories, and a richer understanding of the complex emotions that seals trigger.