An unusual season without seals in the White Sea, day two

A whitecoat pup.Today, we had our second flight to search for seals. For three days all of us have been wondering where the seals are and what was going on. What is unusual for this season is not only the absence of seals, but also the weather. 

Two days ago we came out the hotel early in the morning and it felt rather cold; then we realized it was -30C (-22F). Our small helicopters couldn’t start-- they were frozen like we were. The mechanics and pilots spent five hours with the machines before getting their engines to start.

This morning, the plan was to go for a seal watch, but it was snowing, making it impossible to fly. The forecast wasn’t very encouraging, with a storm to arrive tomorrow. The decision was made to fly as soon as the snow stopped.

After lunch, we flew.

I was very curious about what we would see. About 10 minutes of flight time above the sea, we saw only white ice everywhere and unfrozen patches of water between floes. Then appeared a single seal, then we saw small groups about 10 seals, then again a single seal and small groups. But we didn’t observe any whitecoats. The altitude of flight was about 150-200 meters, so it would be easy to recognize whitecoats if you have some experience. 

Another way to locate baby seals is by the presence of big spots of blood -- labour spots -- on the ice. We also couldn’t find them.

Obviously, something has changed the biology of harp seals population. I had an opinion before coming this year to the White Sea, that the seals’ birthing period is moving to a later period. Usually, these animals come to the White Sea at the end of February, and by the beginning of March, the ice is covered with newborn seals. This year we see a different picture.

Finally, we found a floe with big labour spots and two females with pups. Both of babies were born today. One of them was wet and had dark color fur. His mother was combing him with her front flipper, I suppose to clean the fur after labour. 

Mom and the baby looked very irresolute and didn’t know what exactly to do. The baby seal tried to suckle but was not able. Then he tried to crawl, but one of his flippers was under his belly and when he tried to pull it out, he rolled over on his back. His movement was very cute and like a human baby. We decided not to disturb the young mothers.

We wanted to find a floe we had previously marked with a satellite transmitter where there should be a whitecoat that had been born a week ago. Unfortunately, because of the stormy weather it was very difficult to do. We were defeated and needed to return to the base.

On the way back we saw one walrus. It looked at the helicopter with great interest. I managed to take several photos. In the last seven years the number of walrus sightings has increased. They come from the Barents Sea to the White Sea to hunt whitecoats. It means that harp seals are facing a new threat. The White Sea was chosen by seals as a refuge without enemies.

Summarizing the results of a week of observation I can say that this year that the date of the harp seal population coming to the White Sea is changing. And that the number of seals is unusually low.

Hopefully, the seals will come soon. 

--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