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Northwest Passage: Seal hearts and other parts

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This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.

Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.

By Cameron Dueck

Shortly before Silent Sound set off for the Canadian Arctic last spring the region’s seal population made the headlines.  The European Union banned seal products, angering Inuit hunters and artisans and prompting Canada’s governor general Michaelle Jean to skin one of the creatures and eat a piece of its heart raw to show solidarity with the Inuit. 

As we’ve sailed through the western Arctic and now the central Arctic we’ve seen thousands of seals. In areas where we see no other wildlife we’re still certain to see a seal or two bobbing about in the water, quizzically watching us sail past. They’ve certainly livened up some tedious watches as I’ve stood at the helm.

We’ve eaten seal a few different ways on this trip. Our first taste was barbequed seal ribs, and we’ve since tried it dried and sautéed. I don’t like it dried, but it’s tasty – like liver –when it’s cooked right. I’ve also tried on some of the mitts and boots made from seal skin. The fur is deliciously soft and warm.

They’re cute, they’re harmless, and they’re a key part of the Inuit traditional diet and culture. And there are heaps of them left. The political hijacking of their seals has come up in conversation with several Inuit, and they seem pretty united in their response. Which, in brief, is “Piss off!”

One old timer who invited me into his kitchen for tea lamented the confusion over the seal clubbing ways in parts of eastern Canada and the way he and his fellow hunters dispatch their prey. “We shoot them, we don’t club them, and if those people from down south would come up here I’d show them how we  do it,” he said, nearly spilling his tea as warmed up on the issue. He also offered a few simple but drastic measures to quiet the criticism, but I’m sure he didn’t really mean them.

In Holman (aka Ulukhaktok) we watched a grandmother, her daughter and toddler granddaughter flense a pile of seals caught by the men in their family. It was bloody, dirty work, and the grandmother admitted that few of the younger generation were interested in doing it. However, there was also an every day practicality about what they were doing that both showed respect to the animals and underlined the necessity of these activities in their life.

It’s odd to see so many seals along our route, both ringed seals and bearded seals, and think that elsewhere in the world, where they know little to nothing about seals, these creatures are creating such passionate debate. By coming to the Arctic this summer and weaning myself off daily news I feel I’ve missed out on the seal debate. Instead, I’m in the home of the seals, and watching how they play an integral role in the diet and life of Inuit.

« Northeast Passage: The arctic marine ecosystem | Northeast Passage: A day on the Explorer of Sweden »

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