I was totally blown away after reading the article Jennifer Hayes wrote in the current issue of OG. For those of you who have not read the article yet, she describes an experience she had recently in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada with a baby harp seal and its mother. What caught my attention and held it was the emotion that these little guys stirred for the author, a woman who has decades of experience interacting with marine life all across the planet. The idea that harp seals can bring tears to the eyes of Jennifer Hayes needed a closer look. They are of course ridiculously cute. They look like chubby sausages with flippers and large, button-shaped liquid eyes dressed in fluffy white coats…..but what was the real story here?
Harp seals are abundant in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and she and David Doubilet went to photograph the annual spring pupping event that happens every February. It was the final day of the trip and while on her last dive, Jennifer had found a really friendly and curious baby seal who was inspecting her from the surface of the ice by poking its head down under the water. Its mother, who had been nearby hunting underwater, paused in her feeding efforts to come over and try desperately to lure Jennifer away, but the pup dove into the water to check the diver out more closely. While the mother watched with intense concern, the harp seal pup not only swam up to Jennifer, but actually crawled up on her chest and nuzzled her mask! The heartfelt moment was somewhat interrupted by the arrival of several male harp seals who were eager to get on with the spring mating season and had their eyes set on the pup's mother. To Jennifer's shock and amazement, the attack that the mother seal unleashed on the males was in defense of not only her baby, but Jennifer as well! While the mother dove aggressively at the intruders, Jennifer and the baby harp seal hung together under the ice watching the spectacle unfold below them. Shortly, the mother returned, collected her pup and the two swam through an ice passage so narrow that Jennifer chose not to follow. Instead, she decided to get out of the water, but her plan was crashed by one of the male seals returning to vent his frustration on Jennifer by savagely biting her in the groin and on the thigh. Fortunately, Jennifer Hayes is an experienced, resourceful diver and she was able to maneuver the situation to her advantage, and live to bring the story to us. Her experience gave me chills. And it wasn't just because of the frigid water.
Honestly, I've always dreaded cold-water diving. I wear a 5 mil suit in the tropics and I took my drysuit to Costa Rica. My favorite post-dive spot on liveaboards is in the engine room, wrapped up in a towel, drinking hot coffee. I HATE being cold or even looking at pictures that make me think about being cold. This a curious issue for me because I learned to dive in Colorado, in the winter. I became an instructor, learned ice diving, wreck diving and fast water river rescue all in the most frigid conditions and places imaginable. Still, when I see pictures of dramatic ice flows and the marine life that lives there, I shudder and look for an article with warmer content to focus on first. When I was enlisted to help out with Ocean Geographic's main expedition to the Arctic in 2015 for Elysium Epic from the comfort and warmth of my desk, my thought was, "thank goodness I don't have to get into that water." Jennifer Hayes' story has changed my mind. I would cheerfully head north to see and experience these amazing creatures first hand. The pictures, of course, grabbed me straight away. But it was the warmth and passion of the experience that held my attention and enticed me through to the very last word, freezing cold water and all. And, as much as I detest being cold, there is a genuine need for cold oceans and cold climates in the world, and if we lose that, we are all in trouble here, folks.
The fact of the matter is that the ice flows that the seal mothers use as birthing platforms are becoming unstable in our rapidly warming ocean waters. . What's happening is that the ice is much thinner now than it used to be, and although it is still thick enough for the seals to haul out on, much of the ice is now too thin to survive the frequent storms in the North Atlantic. When the ice flows break up in the storms, many of the baby seals are tossed into the frigid ocean water and perish. If and when the Arctic warms to the point of being truly ice-free during the summer months, this will mean that there will be no habitat left for the harp seals, and this species which currently numbers in the millions will in all likelihood become extinct. Just another victim of our ever warming world.
So, while you still have time, take a look at The Face of Climate Change in our latest issue of Ocean Geographic to see the cutest icon of the Arctic. Let's make the choice now, while we still have time, to save this amazing animal!
Check out Alex Rose's article (also in our latest issue), to get some tips on some of the most immediate and impactful decisions you can make in your own life to have a positive effect on the climate change crisis.
Together, we can be the change we want to see!