by JENNIFER BAIN
FOR A FEW MAGICAL MINUTES, it’s just me and a newborn harp seal on the edge of floating pack ice in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The snow-white pup wiggles and rolls in the crusty snow, trying to figure out how to use its body to move. When it’s on its side, one flipper waves helplessly in the frigid winter air. Nearby, its mom frolics in the water, casting an occasional unconcerned glance our way as she hunts for food. The pup sporadically moans in hunger and stops to stare quizzically into my eyes. I coo at the “whitecoat,” keeping a respectful distance and alternating between savouring the moment and snapping photos.
I’m at this fragile seal birthing ground with about 20 other guests of the Château Madelinot, which has bundled us up in Mustang survival suits and put us in four chartered helicopters. We fly for about 45 minutes until we see a thick, safe patch of ice with a smattering of seals. Then we land and get about one hour on the ice, as the pilots keep a watchful eye on the weather and make sure we keep our distance from the pups and avoid coming between a mama seal and her baby. We spread out, some of us devoting ourselves to a single pup and others making the rounds to meet them all.
This is one of Canada’s rarest wildlife experiences and is has been quietly happening for nearly 40 years. Just 150 people get to travel to Quebec’s Magdalen Islands (aka Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine) each year to join the hotel for this harp seal nursery experience. Japanese travellers dominate, in large part because wildlife photographer Rei Ohara has published multiple books. But National Geographic put this experience on its list of the best 25 trips to take in 2020 and so the word is out
The isolated islands—about 12 in total, six of them linked by sand dunes—are home to about 12,500 Quebecers who call seals “loups-marins” and celebrate them with a rollicking winter festival. For those who want to delve deeper, the Centre d’interprétation du phoque and Musée de la Mer share details about the island’s commercial and subsistence seal hunt, and the Boucherie Spécialisée Côte à Côte and restaurants like Les Pas Perdus sell the meat and share the island’s culinary traditions. Artists like Rachel Drouin transform sealskin into gorgeous pieces of clothing and jewelry.
Harp seals are born here in late February and early March, but to see them you need the wind and weather to co-operate. Climate change has put the birthing grounds, and the photo safaris, at risk. When the stars align, as they did this year, you gratefully savour every precious minute.
IF YOU GO
TRAVEL: Pascan Aviation, a regional carrier, flies from Montreal and Quebec City to Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
STAY: The next seal pub observation season at Château Madelinot is slated to run February 25 to March 8, 2021. Details about the all-inclusive packages and bookings made through firstname.lastname@example.org