Ice conditions in the White Sea are good but where are all the seals?

Ice, but no seals.Many years ago, Masha Vorontsova, from the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Russia office, suggested to Oleg and Marina Prodan to create a seal watching program on the White Sea in the Russian north. This idea was met with enthusiasm by the couple. They built deep in the forest a high-level ecotourism hotel called the Wildlife Discovery Club.

For their logo, they chose a whitecoat seal. Wildlife Discovery Club caters to tourists who want to get far away from city noise, to breathe fresh air and relax in a positive atmosphere. There are no roads to this place; it’s accessible only by plane or helicopter. The nearest well-known islands are the Solovetskye Islands.

I was lucky this year to visit WDC together with Russia Today TV. RT TV is filming a documentary about harp seals in Russia. They met with many experts in Moscow and Arkhangelsk, and came to WDC to see whitecoats for themselves.

I gave a presentation to the tourists, journalists, helicopter pilots and employees of WDC. My presentation was about the biology of harp seals, the history of the hunt and IFAW’s 15 years working for a seals hunt ban. I was very surprised that my presentation aroused such high interest and led to a discussion that went well into the night.

I was waiting to see seals on the ice. I’ve participated twice in aerial survey of harp seals population. I’ve met many people who were lucky to be on ice with whitecoats, but I’ve never been on the ice.

Being able to fly to see seals strongly depends on the weather, which is very uncertain and unpredictable.

Oleg was receiving every day a map of ice conditions. Conditions weren’t the best, but some years were worse although harp seals came to raise their newborn seals. At the end of February, Oleg conducted air reconnaissance, and the result didn’t raise our hopes. He didn’t find whelping grounds, and found only one ice floe with one seal mom and her baby. Oleg marked the floe with a satellite receiver. To be honest, I was sure that in couple of days the seals would appear in the White Sea.

The Wildlife Discovery Club.On 2 March we made the next reconnaissance in very small Robinson helicopter. It was scary to be in air in such small machine. It’s like a toy. But after five minutes the fear went away and I began to enjoy the fantastic view of forest with many animals tracks easily recognized in deep snow and a view of the White Sea.

Ice conditions were rather good and I judged that the ice was fit for seals. We flew farther from the coast, and saw many floes, but no animals. Suddenly our pilot said: “I see many animals in the water.” It was exciting news but it turned out to be herd of beluga whales, about 50 of them with babies. Also, we saw two walruses, whose numbers have been increasing for several years.

We continued flying, but still did not see any seals. Suddenly, we saw about 10 male seals, then one seal, then another. But they all were single isolated seals, instead of the hundreds and thousands that should be seen at this time in the season. In all, I counted about hundred adult seals and not more than 10 babies.

It’s extremely strange.

We managed to find the floe marked by Oleg two days before and there we saw one female with her cub. And we didn’t find any other floes with more than one whitecoat on it.

We landed on the marked floe. We were lucky; the young mother dove into the water, so we had opportunity to sneak up on the whitecoat.

It’s impossible to describe the emotion of the meeting this white creature with big black yes, who can say “mama.” It’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.

He or she was hiding in an ice hummock out of the wind. I kept wondering how people could kill such a defenseless baby. 

I also wondered why seals came to the White Sea--even they must have known that thousands of their babies would die.

I was proud that IFAW had had stopped this meaningless and cruel slaughter in Russia.

Tomorrow we have another flight scheduled but whether we will see seals no one can predict. Where are all the seals? The question is open. 

--AF

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Experts

Dr. Ralf (Perry) Sonntag, Country Director, Germany
Country Director, Germany
Robbie Marsland, Regional Director, United Kingdom
Regional Director, United Kingdom
Sheryl Fink, Wildlife Campaigns Director, IFAW Canada
Wildlife Campaigns Director, IFAW Canada
Sonja Van Tichelen, Regional Director, European Union
Regional Director, European Union