Romance on Thin Ice

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A mother hooded seal is nurturing her newborn offspring on an ice floe drifting around in the vast Greenland Sea. The otherwise pure white snow is coloured red in some places, evidence of the recent drama that has taken place in this very remote part of our planet.  Every year at the end of March, thousands of hooded seals (Phoca cristata) gather in a relatively small area in the drift ice east off the Greenland coast. The West Ice has long been known for the seal gatherings, where they haul themselves up onto the ice and give birth. However, few people have witnessed this wonder of nature as the chosen location is one of the most remote spots on the planet. Not only remote, but in March, the winter storms are still frequent and can easily make any expedition to these ice filled waters become a dangerous voyage. Through history, many lives have been lost due to the ocean’s ever-changing mood.

The mother seal and her offspring are not alone. Scattered all over the ice, there are mother seals lying on the broken ice floes. The hooded seal is unique in having the shortest lactation period of any mammal. The females only spend four days together with the offspring, often called blue-backs because of their slate blue-grey coats. During these four intense days she never leaves the ice floe, and she will fiercely protect her newborn towards all visitors to her chosen piece of ice. Visitors in these waters usually mean male hooded seals, and they impatiently wait for the females to finish the whelping period and return down into the ocean. The reason is that following the short nurturing period comes an even more hectic mating period.

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The males are horny, and horny males will do anything to get their sexual drift released. As the bizarre looking seal breaks his head through the slushy ice surface, with his jaw wide open growling and his nose inflated like a balloon, he could easily earn his place as a sea monster in any science fiction horror film. He is so impatient to get the female out into the ocean that he actively will try to catch the blue-back and throw the young seal off the ice floe. This is the only way the adult mother will come into the sea before the lactation period is over. The males are ready, and as fiercely as the females protect their offspring, the males will fight all other males that approach their chosen one. For four days, the males circle the ice floes like sharks circle their prey, waiting for the females to finish. Even though the birth is relatively synchronised between the females, there are some days between them and females get ready to mate at slightly different days over a fourteen-day period. The males try to seek out those that are closest to finishing their nurturing. This often escalates the competition between the males, and some fights are so severe that males can be left with serious wounds. The explosion of ice and water, sharp teeth that slice into the blubbery skin accompanied with roaring and growling as loud as a polar bear are evidence that one of the most bizarre romances in the Arctic is no walk in the park for those involved.

While in the helicopter on the way back to the expedition vessel MS Nordsyssel, we had time to reflect a little about what we had just witnessed. Even though there seemed to be plenty of hooded seals in this area, scientists have already seen worrying signs that something is not quite ideal in the Arctic. The hooded seal belongs to the pagophile (ice thriving) sea mammals as it is dependent on drift ice to give birth to its young.

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“Already in 2007, we discovered that the hooded seal population had declined so much that we needed to ban sealing of this species,” says Tore Haug, scientist and leader of the sea mammal group of the Norwegian Marine Institute of Research (IMR) in Tromsø. He and his colleagues are on yet another seal expedition on the West Ice, and he unfortunately sees no signs of improvement in the situation since his last visit. “It is too early to give exact numbers. We need to study our aerial photos of the whelping patch before we are able to say anything for certain, but our first impression gives little hope of any significant population increase.”

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Essay & Photographs by Eirik Grønningsæter ( OG 35)

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