LIVE FROM THE ICE 2009
Canada's cruel seal hunt from the journal of Rebecca Aldworth, HSI's Director of Canadian Wildlife issues and long-time observer of the seal hunt
READ MORE ON THE BACKGROUND AND WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP STOP THE CRUEL CANADIAN SEAL HUNT
Follow HSI/Canada's Rebecca Aldworth as she documents Canada's commercial seal kill, and take action to end this bloody business.
Killing time by killing seals
I remember the first time I saw the seal slaughter. Standing on the ocean on a pan of ice, I watched in horror as sealers descended on helpless pups in front of me. I froze, mouthing the word "stop" over and over, to no avail. Clubs raised and fell in a sick rhythm, blood splattering the ice all around.
From the ice, the violence of the kills, the sounds of the clubs and crying seals, and the smell of the blood surround you. Your senses are overwhelmed' you can barely absorb what you are seeing, and it is everything you can do to point your camera, try to hold it steady, and shoot. But your proximity to the killing provides an illusion' no matter how baseless' of the power to intervene.
From the air, it's different. You hang, a thousand feet above the killing, watching hopelessly through a lens as sealers run toward unsuspecting pups. You call out for the pups to get into the water, knowing they cannot hear. You curse the sealers as they deliver yet another agonizing death to a helpless baby seal. But your distance from it all makes your helplessness devastatingly apparent.
Only weeks ago, we stood on the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, surrounded by life. Mother seals and their pups touched noses. Pups nursed, slept, and played on the ice. On Saturday, the ProtectSeals team filmed the deaths of these seals, and our only ammunition against the crueltywas our high powered camera.
As our helicopter approached, we saw the shrimp and crab boats on the horizon, positioned to kill the seals. These fishermen are Canada's sealers. They are killing time by killing seals until the fisheries' which contribute virtually all of their incomes' are open.
They are not marksmen. The bullets spray across the ice, missing the seals by feet, terrifying the pups. And then the bullets tear through flesh, and the seals die slowly as their blood spills across the ice.The northern Gulf is turned crimson as the seals' nursery is turned into a slaughterhouse.
One seal was shot at in open water, over and over again as she tried to save her life, desperately thrashing around. But the bullets kept coming. They killed her in the end, and a sealer leaned over the side of the boat and stabbed her with a gaff to drag her onto the deck. An agonizing death for a seal whose life was worth only15 Canadian dollars to a sealer.
Another seal was shot and dragged across the ice, still moving. He was sliced open and tossed like garbage into a small boat, full of dead seals and blood. For minutes we filmed from the air, as the pup continued to move, sliding around in the blood-soaked pile of dead seals in the filthy bottom of this small vessel.
Still another pup was shot and wounded, and he crawled into the water. The sealing boat came close, and a sealer leaned over the side with a gaff. He stabbed the pup through her chest and pulled her out. Even from hundreds of feet in the air, we could see the seal was crying out in pain. They dragged her on board the vessel and clubbed her on the deck, ready to slice off her skin.At the back of the boat, sealers tossed the carcasses into the ocean -- the bodies hold no value to them.
One seal slipped into the water after being shot on the ice, his blood spreading on the water's surface. The sealer ran over to fish around in the cold ocean with his club, but the mortally wounded seal was gone - just another statistic in this bloody slaughter.
For weeks, we have born witness to the suffering of these seals. And despite the public relations efforts of the Canadian government, our footage clearly shows that Canada's commercial seal hunt is the same cruel, needless, and wasteful kill it has always been.
At long last, the ProtectSeals team left this area yesterday, and we did so with the knowledge that our work has just begun. We must end this slaughter before it opens next spring, and we will work around the clock to achieve that goal.
The good news is that we are very close to stopping the commercial seal hunt for good.
Our campaign to close markets for seal products is succeeding and, as predicted, most fishermen are not bothering to kill the seals as a result. Tens of thousands of seals have already been spared this year because of the low prices for seal fur. All across the United States, people and businesses are using their purchasing power to stop the slaughter, refusing to buy Canadian seafood until the seal hunt is ended for good. Soon, sealers will make the logical choice and protect their primary source of income' seafood exports' by turning in their sealing licenses.
We can win this, if we all work together. Thank you for standing with the ProtectSeals team throughout our expedition to document the Canadian seal hunt' I know you will be there as we work to put a final end to this cruelty in the coming year.
It is strange for me to be here.
This is the area I grew up in, full of beautiful mountains and sparkling ocean. But these scenes, once so familiar, have taken on another meaning. I am not at home here anymore - this landscape has come to feel like death tome.
Flying over the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence today, I watched as Newfoundland sealers began slaughtering the seal pups in earnest. They were armed with their usual rifles and clubs, long wooden gaffs to drag the wounded and dying back to their boats.
Even from a thousand feet in the air, we could see the torrents of blood gushing out from behind the boats, a sickening red wake spreading out for 200 feet behind them.
Everywhere, baby seals lay unsuspectingly on the ice pans. The boats made their way through, shooting, clubbing and hooking the pups. One seal was shot at from a very long distance - as blood spouted from his head, his tail began to move and he slipped over the side of the ice into the water. The sealing vessel slowly manoeuvred its way into place, and a sealer ran after the pup, determined to take his skin.
He leaned over, reached into the water, and grabbed the dying baby seal by his flipper. Pulling him up onto the ice, the sealer clubbed him and then impaled the pup on a hook, dragging him back to the boat, a slick trail of blood left across the ice.
As we hovered in the sky, I looked into the boats. The sealers stood on bloody decks, their coveralls drenched in blood. Their bats were bloody, their hands were bloody, and blood poured off the decks into the ocean. I know the smell of seal blood, and I can imagine what it is like to be there on those boats, so close to the carnage.
I can only wonder what kind of person can become so desensitized to pain and suffering that they would choose to participate in this miserable industry.
As we prepare for tomorrow's trip to the sealing areas, I am thinking of my childhood here' the kind people and the stunning landscape are hard to forget.
But I am coming to realize that slowly, those good memories are drowning in a sea of blood.
On Monday, the ProtectSeals team was ready at dawn to document the Maritimes section of Canada's commercial seal hunt (this takes place off Cape Breton, in Nova Scotia).
A sealing boat leaves a trail of blood behind. © HSI/Sanchez, 04-06-09As soon as it was confirmed that the sealing vessels had left port, we deployed our small,rigid, inflatable boat from a hidden cove and sped to the coordinates where they had operated the day before.
Halfway to our destination, heavy ice floes appeared, quickly surrounding us. Our hearts sank' it would take us hours to reach the coordinates in these ice conditions. But we were determined to witness the slaughter, and we manoeuvred through very slowly, pushing the massive floes out of our path. Two long hours later, we finally reached the coordinates, only to find there was not a sealing boat in sight.
As we searched the area, we received a call from our helicopter team. Three of the four sealing vessels had moved far north, well out of the reach of our boat. Our only option was to keep our helicopter near those vessels, filming from the air, as we scouted for the remaining sealing boat. Pushing through the heavy ice, we could only hope it was close enough for us to find.
An hour later, we saw it appear on the horizon: a fast vessel, outfitted with two rifle stations and a crew on deck scanning for seals. We immediately fell into position behind the boat, ready to document the killing. For hours, the boat smashed through the ice, searching for seals, ice floe by ice floe.
Suddenly, we heard a gunshot. We raced toward the vessel, filming as a sealer jumped over the side of the boat to club the seal pup with a wooden bat. Casually impaling the dying seal on a metal hook, he dragged the animal toward the boat, a sickening trail of blood behind him. The boat moved on, and we followed. But there were very few seals in this area' over the next few hours, they found only three more seals. In each case, their shots were not enough, and the sealers had to club each pup to finish them off. In one case, they shot at a pup five times before clubbing her six more times' not a humane death by anyone's standard.
We watched miserably as the boat drew close to a fat pup lying on an ice floe in the sun. This baby seal was completely unaware of the danger he was in, innocently watching with trusting eyes as the sealers approached.
There are no words to describe the helplessness you feel as a sealer bear downs on a baby seal. Prevented by law from intervening, you can only hope for some kind of miracle. Today, we got one - as the men jumped over the side of their boat, clubs raised, the pup quickly reacted.
Despite his youth, this pup was able to swim, and he dove fast under the water's surface, escaping the sealers by inches. We all cheered from our boat, thrilled that at least one baby seal had gotten away.
Our mood lifted even more. For the next several hours, the sealing vessel did not find one seal to kill. Then we received a wonderful call from our helicopter crew ' ¦ the three sealing boats in the north had headed back to port. They too were having problems locating the seals.
As the light began to fade, we made the long trip back to our cove. We had been out at sea for 12 hours, and we were exhausted, profoundly saddened by the suffering and waste we had witnessed.
Today we depart for Newfoundland, to document the third phase of the commercial seal hunt. There, tens of thousands more seals may be killed in this pointless slaughter. I know what lies before us' I have witnessed it for more than a decade. But I also know that for the first time, there is real hope for the seals. Canadian media has just reported that prices for seal skins have crashed to $15, and many of the sealers in this region have chosen to stay home as a result. There is a good chance sealers will not come close to reaching the quota this year.
Our campaign is working' soon, seal fur will be worthless to fishermen, and the Canadian government will respond to the overwhelming international pressure to stop this slaughter. Your support is truly saving the seals. I know that by working together this year, we can ensure this is the last seal slaughter any of us ever has to witness.
I want the world to remember this
So often the suffering of the seals during this slaughter is viewed at a distance.
From the air, from thousands of feet, somehow the pain of the animals does not transmit properly.
You see them wriggling across the ice, blood trailing behind them. You see their mouths open in a silent scream through the camera lens.
But from the ice it is different. You hear their cries, you see them try to escape, you smell the blood and you feel their terror.
Yesterday, the ProtectSeals team travelled to the seal killing area by zodiac (a small, inflatable boat), documenting the slaughter from 30 meters away. We witnessed so many seals dying a horrible death, as sealers shot at the terrified babies, and then descended on the wounded, struggling animals with wooden bats.
I will never be able to forget the agonizing assault on one seal. The pup was in front of our zodiac, and a nearby sealing vessel approached. The pup sniffed the air as if sensing danger.
He looked around, and then the first bullet slammed into him. His scream could be heard all across the water. He tried to crawl away but another bullet ripped through his flesh.
His outraged cries echoed as a third and fourth and fifth bullet hit him. Finally, he dove into the water. He did not come back up. The sealers shrugged nonchalantly and moved on.
We looked around frantically for him but he did not surface. Likely, this baby seal would have bled to death slowly and painfully under the water, like tens of thousands of other seals that are "struck and lost" each year in this cruel slaughter.
I want the world to remember this brave seal. His cries of protest are echoing in my mind and I want them to sound across the world. I want everyone to hear as I did the mortal cries of a wounded baby seal who doesn't understand why he is being hurt.
And hearing those cries, know as I do that this slaughter simply has to stop.
Despite Canada's assurances that this year the seal hunt will be humane, we filmed so much cruelty it is unbearable. Sealers were shooting at seals in open water, not bothering to retrieve the wounded animals.
So many pups were shot multiple times before the sealer approached and, realizing the seal was still conscious, beat the animals to death with wooden bats. Wounded seals were repeatedly allowed to slip beneath the water's surface, left to die slowly.
I have filmed this carnage for 11 years now, and this year is exactly the same as every other' filled with unspeakable suffering and unconscionable cruelty.
Not surprisingly, some sealers don't want us to film them. They were more aggressive toward our observers than ever before. Yesterday they made veiled threats about "ricocheting bullets" hitting us, and they pointed a rifle at us. Four sealing boats repeatedly tried to ram our zodiac, yelling threats all the while.
It takes a special kind of person to club and shoot helpless baby seals and threaten unarmed, peaceful observers. The sealers' cowardice speaks volumes. We won't be intimidated, and we won't go anywhere.
We are here to document the cruelty, and it is crucial work. For we know, as the sealers do, that our evidence will put this industry into the history books where it belongs.
Time is almost up
For days, the ProtectSeals team has been in a horrible kind of limbo.
The Maritimes seal hunt is officially open, but heavy ice has kept the sealing vessels from reaching the seals. The pups lie, just a few miles off the shores of Cape Breton, blissfully unaware that they may be killed at any time.
Today, we flew over the harbor. I was so relieved to see the vessels were deserted, still surrounded by thick ice. We turned back, thrilled that the seals had been spared for another day.
But then I looked closer. I realized with horror that a baby seal was right below us, just a couple hundred meters away from the sealing boats. He was awkwardly moving across the ice, tragically oblivious to the danger surrounding him. Looking around, I saw there were more babies. We counted at least50pups in the harbor, pushed directly into harm's way by strong currents and winds.They were safe only for a moment until the ice begins to open up.
You see, the winds are changing direction. The ice is being pulled apart, and paths are appearing through the floes. The seals' best protection is literally falling apart. The sealing boats are waiting, and soon, they will find their way out to the seals.
As time passes, I find myself filled with questions:
About the people who would see this magnificent ice landscape and want to turn it into an open-air slaughterhouse.
About the men who look at defenseless seal pups wriggling on their backs in the pure pleasure of a sunbeam... and then think of beating them to death.
About my government which, in direct opposition to Canadian will, condemns hundreds of thousands of baby seals to a cruel death every year.
I wonder about all of these things, as the seconds and minutes and hours go by, and the brief lives of the baby seals come closer and closer to ending.
Their time is almost up. I can only take comfort in knowing that so too is the life of the sealing industry. Markets are closing for seal products the world over. Nations are banning their seal hunts. Canadian politicians are speaking out against the slaughter. Slowly but surely, this wretched trade is coming to a stop.
I only wish it had been soon enough to save these pups from the horrible fate I know is coming.
Yesterday, the ProtectSeals team rose at 5 am to fly out to film the slaughter that we expected to start early in the morning. But when we arrived at the harbor, the sealing vessels were still tied to the docks, and there was not a sealer in sight.
We heard from a few sources that the ice was still too heavy for the boats to navigate, and the sealers would stay home for another day.
So instead of filming slaughter, we visited the still pristine harp seal nursery. Our goal was to show the world exactly what these sealers are so determined to destroy.
Our visit was among the best of my life. Shining sun reflected off the brilliant ice landscape. Ice formations surrounded us and the seals' creating a stunning landscape with hues of blues and purples. It was so warm that we could have worn t-shirts.
The seal pups had shed their white fur, yet it was apparent to all that these were very much still babies. Just three weeks old, the pups were sleeping, sliding across the ice, or taking turns slipping into shallow pools of water, learning to swim.
I immediately befriended one seal pup who was clearly very sleepy. He glanced up as I slipped onto the ice next to him and lay down, but he was not concerned about my presence at all.
As the sun beat down on us both, he fanned his flippers and then his eyes slowly closed. Soon, I began to drift away too, and within minutes my new seal friend and I were asleep in the sun.
Occasionally, we would awake, and I would see him nuzzle the snow a bit or lazily scratch his nose with his flipper. We were just a foot apart, and he was utterly trusting and accepting of my presence.
We spent this amazing day surrounded by dozens of intelligent, charismatic baby seals. After six hours with them, we all felt on top of the world.
Finally, we had to go back, and we reluctantly got onto our helicopters. We made our way back to land' images of beautiful ice and happy seals filled our minds.
But as we were making our way back to the town, we received a devastating phone call. The sealing boats were leaving the harbor. And they were headed directly for the seals we had just left.
We raced back to the airport, feeling utterly miserable. It was absolutely unthinkable that these defenseless and wonderful pups could be slaughtered in front of us.
We flew out at top speed to where the boats were, just a couple of miles from the harbor. My heart sank as we saw them navigating their way through the ice floes, with two coast guard vessels standing by, ready to help them. We looked at each other in panic.
The utter helplessness of documenting a slaughter you are prevented by law from stopping' especially after having befriended its victims' is unbearable.
But suddenly everything changed. We realized the sealing boats were headed in the wrong direction' they were turning back to port. The ice floes were still too heavy for them to get through, and they had to return. Our team cheered wildly from the air as the sealers stepped back on land, the baby seals safe for another day.
We then heard even better news: gale force winds and freezing rain are coming and it is likely that this, paired with the heavy ice, will stop the boats for another two or three days.
So we will wait here.
We wait with the knowledge that just this Friday Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers Association, urged sealers to be on their best behavior to prevent groups like The Humane Society of the United States from gathering damaging evidence.
Notably, though, he then said, "I won't say we can eliminate the bad practices out there."
Given that sealers are openly admitting that they cannot eliminate inhumane killing in the commercial seal slaughter, I can only ask how can a progressive country like Canada can allow it to continue.
Obviously, the sealers know that the evidence we gather this year can destroy their industry. But as much as they'd like this slaughter to happen without witnesses, we aren't going anywhere, and we will film everything.
We know exactly what will happen on those ice floes, and we will document it. We will prove to the world that this slaughter is inherently cruel, and in doing so, we will shut it down forever.
March 27, 2009 - Posted 1pm AST
The ProtectSeals team is standing by, ready to document the second phase of the commercial seal slaughter off Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Right now, sealers are preparing their vessels to leave for the slaughter. The seal hunt officially opened in this area half an hour before dawn. But for once, the seals have a reprieve.
The ice floes between the harbour and the seals is too thick for the sealing vessels to get through.
We cheered as we flew over the solid floes, that no sealing vessel could ever make its way through' an impenetrable barrier between the defenseless pups and those who would beat and shoot them to death for their skins.
The baby seals were playing peacefully on the ice, blissfully unaware of their likely fate.
Tragically, the winds are expected to shift later today, and the ice will pull apart. The sealers say that tomorrow they will be able to leave for the floes, and the killing will begin.
When it does, we will be there and we will expose to the world the cruelty that happens in this remote area.
Because with the evidence we gather, we are shutting down this industry forever.
Hovering over hell
Today was very hard.
Sealers from the Magdalen Islands had already killed most of the seals allotted to them in their quota by the end of yesterday. So it was likely they would kill the rest today very quickly.
We would only have a few hours to film the cruel reality of this slaughter.
Our helicopters left at dawn, battling gale force winds to reach the killing zone. On the horizon, I could see sealing vessels working their way through the ice floes, slaughtering as many seals as they could before the quota was filled. We came closer, and the blood began to appear. Giant pools of it, spread all across the ice. Every few hundred feet, dozens of carcasses were abandoned in macabre piles.
Only Silence Remains
Only silence remains
This afternoon, we reached the scene of the commercial harp seal slaughter in the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Our helicopter flew through gale force winds' slowed by massive gusts' to reach the carnage.
By the time we arrived, we had little fuel and almost no time to spend there before sundown. But it didn't take long for us to fully comprehend the atrocity happening on the ice below.
It's hard to write this, because it's hard to think about what I have just seen.
The blood was visible from the air, from 2,000 feet away. The carcasses were dumped 'as they always are' left to rot in the blood of the slaughtered seals. These seals are killed for their fur in a pointless slaughter, all for vanity and fashion.
From the air, we could see the babies try to crawl away, to escape as the sealers bore down on them.
But they were no match for men armed with hakapiks and knives. In seconds, the sealers reached the defenseless pups, and beat the terrified animals to death.
We landed on the ice to observe the killing from there. We ran across the floe toward the area where the sealers were killing seals.
Seeing us, they stopped their grisly work, got back on their vessel and left the area.
The sealers know that the images of the slaughter are their undoing. They will do anything to prevent us from obtaining our evidence' including occasionally leaving a few survivors behind.
Two pups remained on the floe' alone and terrified, they were left to crawl through the blood and carcasses.
These animals were born in the beginning of March. Now, just three weeks later, they have been subjected to violence more obscene than most adult humans can fathom.
I take some small comfort in the knowledge that those two seals are still alive on that pan of ice because we were there today.
What remains of the harp seal nursery is the carnage, the devastation, and the complete absence of the sounds of the seals. What was once the best place on Earth is now one of the worst.
Today brings very bad news.
The weather has gotten dramatically worse' surrounded by heavy snow and gale force winds, and our helicopters are once again unable to reach the ice floes upon which the commercial seal slaughter is happening.
Worse, the Canadian government has just confirmed to The HSUS and HSI that 9,500 seals have already been killed near the Magdalen Islands.
You see, the weather that grounds our helicopters does not stop the sealers. Operating from ships, they are continuing to kill seals in these unbelievable conditions' amidst high ocean swells and strong winds.
We can only imagine how many seals are being wounded and left to suffer.
It is hard to explain the feelings that the team is experiencing. Profound sadness' knowing the wonderful baby seals we spent time with just weeks ago are now being subjected to unspeakable cruelty. Tremendous frustration knowing their deaths are occurring without witnesses, without documentation' that this part of the slaughter has happened in secrecy.
We are looking at every possible option to reach the ice floes, and we are hoping the weather will turn this afternoon. As soon as it does, we will be there, on the ice floes to bear witness to the largest slaughter of marine mammals on Earth.
In the meantime, we are working around the clock to ensure that this will be the last slaughter of defenseless seal pups in Canada.In the U.S., our boycott of Canadian seafood continues to gain ground, and Russia recently announced a complete ban on slaughter of seals under one year of age' effectively ending one of the major kills of harp seals in the world.
Against all odds
Today has been overwhelming. We awoke at 4 AM, ready to fly our helicopters out to the ice floes to document the killing which was set to begin half an hour before dawn. But as soon as we arrived at the airport, it became clear that weather would not permit us to fly to the scene of the slaughter, located some 80 miles away.
As the hours passed, the weather turned from bad to worse, and we began to think it would be impossible to document the hunt today. It was unbearable to know that while the weather kept our helicopters away, it did not stop the hunters from killing the seals. This slaughter would begin without witnesses.
We had almost given up when we saw a narrow corridor between the fog and freezing rain. We immediately flew as fast as we could to the coordinates we had been given for the killing site.
Battling freezing fog and driving snow, at about 3:45 PM, our helicopters landed on the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
It is unthinkable that just weeks ago we stood on these ice floes with newborn seals. Today, the ice is awash in their blood. We could see it 'and the carcasses' on the floes from hundreds of feet in the air. It is devastating to be here' the suffering is palpable.
This is my 11th year observing the commercial seal slaughter, and I know what we will see over the coming days. Behind the slick PR lines of the Canadian government lies this inherently cruel slaughter.
Humane Society International/Canada and The HSUS document the killing each year, and it is unbearable to know the horrible fate that awaits so many baby seals in the coming days. But we're here to bear witness.
We do so in the knowledge that we are the eyes of the world at this hunt. In weeks, the European Union will vote on a proposal to ban trade in seal products, potentially cutting off a primary market for the Canadian sealing industry.
And it's the evidence we gather on the ice floes in the coming days that can persuade the EU' and the world' to stop this cruelty forever.
Broadcast this cruelty to the world
Half an hour before sunrise today, the world's largest slaughter of marine mammals' Canada's commercial seal kill' officially opens.
Right now, sealers are likely making their way toward the ice floes, where the baby seals lie, tragically unaware of their fate. We fly this morning into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to document the killing should the sealers reach their targets.
I know what lies ahead once the killing begins' this is my 11th year in a row documenting this horrible slaughter
The ice floes, so pristine and beautiful before the killing begins, will be awash in blood.
The baby seals I befriended just two short weeks ago on these ice floes will fall victim to an incomprehensible drive to kill beautiful, charismatic, and intelligent creatures merely for their skins.
It will be almost unbearable to be there.
But we're there because we know that our evidence' the images we broadcast around the world' are ending the slaughter for good.
And as long as the seals are killed, we must expose the cruelty.
Please stay with us as we bear witness to the opening day of Canada's globally condemned slaughter of baby seals.
Rebecca Aldworth is director of Humane Society International Canada (HSI Canada). For more than a decade, she has observed first hand Canada's commercial seal hunt' escorting more than 100 scientists, parliamentarians and journalists to the ice floes to bear witness to the largest marine mammal slaughter on Earth.