By Captain Paul Watson
Forty years ago on March 15th, 1977, French film star Brigitte Bardot traveled to the ice floes off the Eastern Coast of Canada to focus attention on the slaughter of baby whitecoat seals.
Her arrival was met with hostility by Newfoundland sealers and by the Canadian government, yet despite harassment and ugly threats she rode in my helicopter far offshore to meet the seals.
She was fearless. We flew through blizzard conditions with very poor visibility to over a hundred miles off the coast.
Upon arrival in the midst of thousands of seals, she posed cheek to cheek with a baby seal for photos that circulated around the globe and brought the issue of the slaughter of the seal pups to a global audience.
For the two previous years, we had worked to get media attention to this atrocity on the Eastern Canadian icefloes. The media had ignored us.
That all changed with the arrival of Brigitte Bardot.
The baby seals now had a guardian angel. Bardot and the baby seal appeared on the cover of magazines around the globe.
By 1984, the slaughter of newborn whitecoats was abolished and the market for whitecoat seal products ended.
The genesis of this achievement was Brigitte Bardot’s courageous invasion of the ice floes in defense of le petite bebe phoques.
The killing continued with the government allowing the slaughter of seals after they have shed their whitecoats. The lack of a sizeable market was met with Canadian government subsidies and although the quotas were raised, the kill numbers dropped due to lack of demand. In 2008, the market for seal pelts was once again struck a blow with a complete ban on seal products by the European Parliament.
In 2011, the government in a spiteful move set a new quota at 400,000 seals a year.
Over the last six years, the 400,000 number has never been reached. In fact, the total number of seals killed in all six years since 2011 is about 350,000.
There is no doubt that what Brigitte Bardot did in 1977 has saved the lives of millions of seals, an achievement that animal lovers around the world applaud and recognize her for.
So this year I wanted to honor her by sending an all female team to the ice floes to meet the baby seals.
I chose Sea Shepherd Toronto Director Brigitte Breau to be the team leader. It was her job to organize the logistics. The rest of the crew consisted of my wife Yana Watson, Canadian Animal Rights lawyer Camille Labchuk, Clementine Pallanca from Monaco and Hollywood movie star Michelle Rodriguez. In addition we had two helicopter pilots and Omar Todd to handle I.T. back at the base in Charlottetown.
Along with them were videographers Canadian Marketa Schusterova, Jasmine Lord from Australia and French photographer Bernard Sidler.
It was a simple mission. Take two helicopters, fly to the seals on the ice and take some pictures with some baby seals. An easy mission or so we thought.
A few days before their arrival, the team received a shock when they viewed Satellite images of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. What they saw, we had never seen before.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence was completely ice-free.
For over four decades I have traveled to the ice floes and each time I had to work my ship through many miles of solid pack ice. Often the ice was so think and hard it stopped our progress completely, ice so extensive we could step off the ship and walk for miles without seeing any open water.
What the crew saw this year was an endless blue, with patches of ice so thin it could not be safely walked upon.
For Camille Labchuk, who was raised in Prince Edward Island before becoming an Animal Rights lawyer in Ottawa, what she saw was astounding. “We flew over the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of the harp seal nursery, we witnessed some of the worst ice conditions I have ever seen. When I was growing up in PEI, it was normal for the Gulf to be packed all winter long with the thick, solid sea ice that harp seals need to give birth and nurse their young. This year marks a decade since my first trip off the coast of P.E.I. in search of seals and it is heartbreaking to witness how rapidly climate change has destroyed the harp seal habitat. With thousands of baby seals drowning as the ice melts from underneath them, it is utterly irresponsible for the Canadian government to continue to allow sealers to cruelly club and shoot the surviving seals.”
This was not good.
Without the ice the seals cannot be found. The ice is essential for the seals to give birth to their pups. The Latin name for the harp seal is Pagophilus groenlandicus or the ‘ice lover from Greenland.’ The ice floes are their nurseries, and now that hard ice security was nowhere to be found.
The helicopters flew out on the first day without spotting a single seal or a piece of ice safe enough to stand on. This was tragic news. If the mother could not find ice, they would be forced to drop their pups in the sea where they would immediately drown.
The crew quickly realized that there was now something more threatening to the seals than the club wielding sealers.
On the second day of searching, the team found a few hundred seal pups and their mothers on a small patch of shore fast ice along the coastline of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
Photo opportunities were difficult. Every year tourists arrive to be flown out by helicopter to meet the baby seals, but not this year. There were few places to land and the ice conditions, where ice could be found was dangerously broken up. The tours had been cancelled. The Sea Shepherd women had to jump from one ice pan to another to reach a seal pup.
Clementine found one very small little pup with the umbilical cord attached and this was not a good sign. The seals should have been about two weeks old at this point but this little fellow was recently born, a sign that its mother had been searching for the ice to finally give birth.
Clementine Pallanca was with Yana when they both met the seals for the first time. Just like Brigitte Bardot forty years earlier both women were captivated by these snowy white babies. Said Clementine, “they have amazing big dark eyes and a beautiful deep look that really melted my heart. I spent an extraordinary moment, playing and cuddling them. I felt I had a privilege to witness them, because the situation with the disappearing ice is tragic.
For Yana, a new mother herself, it was a very sad encounter. “I have a son of 5 months old. I was just imagining for a moment how I would feel if somebody came to my house and beat my little baby to death in front of me or to skin him alive leaving me with the dying bleeding body. The horror is unimaginable but this is the horror that tens of thousands of mother seals experience every year.”
Michelle Rodriguez arrived on the third day. A blizzard moved in during the night but fortunately the skies were clear the next morning. The helicopters returned to the ice where the seals had been found two days before but to their great disappointment, both the seals and the ice were gone.
The pilots took into account the change of the wind and relocated the patch of ice, miles off shore. The ice patch was smaller and badly broken up and there were fewer seals than two days before.
Michelle was not going to let the opportunity be lost because of potentially dangerous ice conditions. The ice was too unstable to land, a steady swell was moving through the loose pack and as the helicopter hovered a few inches above a bobbing small pan of ice, she jumped, followed by Yana and photographer Bernard Sidler.
The three of them had to hike a little bit to reach the seals because the helicopters had to land a safe distance from the new born pups so as not to frighten them.
It was not easy going. The wind was bitingly cold and the ice pans were grinding together. A slip between two pans of ice would be potentially fatal. The two women had to jump from pan to pan and to leap across small patches of water and slush.
“It was worth the risk,” said Michelle. “They are such beautiful creatures.”
The second helicopter was unable to locate any seals and had to land in the Magdalen Islands in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to refuel.
This is not a friendly place if you are opposed to the killing of seals. In 1995, I led a team to the Magdalens to promote alternative employment to killing seals. My crew including actor Martin Sheen and many journalists were assaulted and I was beaten severely.
Twenty-two years later Brigitte and Marketa left the helicopter to use the restroom and to get a cup of tea in the small airport terminal, only to find that the animosity by the sealers towards seal defenders was a strong as ever.
Said Brigitte, “when we entered the terminal, we were almost immediately blocked and confronted by an aggressive man who grabbed, shoved, and jabbed me in the back, while other men stood nearby menacingly. We tried to leave but were confronted by a second aggressive man who attempted to block our exit from the terminal.”
They managed to get back to their helicopter and returned to Prince Edward Island to regroup.
Bernard took numerous pictures of Michelle with the baby seals. The objective of honoring Brigitte Bardot by revisiting the seals four decades later was achieved but in a far different manner than planned.
When she returned from her experience with the seal pups, Michelle Rodriguez said “I was expecting to see thousands of seals on a solid ice pack. What I saw is an ecological disaster.”
These were not the same conditions in which Brigitte had landed in 1977. What the crew were looking at was a far greater threat to the survival of the harp seals than the ruthless seal hunters.
Without the ice the seals cannot survive and it will be climate change that will be their undoing with frightful consequences for humanity.
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