More than 20 years ago, Ben Bressler first got the idea of taking tourists to see the whitecoats, the adorable white baby harp seals, which are famous for their brutal slaughter the on Canadian ice floes. Bressler, along with IFAW, figured if he could find a way to make more money off showing off seals than killing them, he could change their thinking.
“It’s a much bigger issue there than the actual revenue,” Bressler says. “The rest of Canada has nothing to do with hunting, but feels that Americans shouldn’t be sticking their nose into their business.”
So, he started bringing tourists. Decades later, both tourists and hunters still visit the baby seals. But Bressler’s tours have gradually eroded the defiant enthusiasm for the seal hunt. In a world increasingly covered with identical suburban sprawl, the Magdelan Islands profit by drawing people to a place that looks completely different and has something no one can copy. No corporation can open up a franchise of its seal pup nursery in Times Square. The seal tours were just the first of Bressler’s animal journeys: now he runs Natural Habitat Adventures, which takes tiny groups to secluded areas where animals live in the wild.
But to get there, Bressler first had to tackle all of the logistics and politics of the seal hunt. About 70% of the the hunting happens on “the Front,” the wildly inacessable sea off Newfoundland and Labrador. But the pictures and protest focus on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which, by comparison with the Front, is only moderately inaccessible. Hunters go out in late March on Gulf of St. Lawrence and in early April on the Front. The hunters on the Front tend to shoot seals from big commercial vessels that can go long distances. The St. Lawrence hunters tend ride out i the freezing water in rowboats, which they have to haul over ice, to reach the seals, which they club to death.
Obviously, neither the winter cruise from Newfoundland nor the rowboat tour of freezing St. Lawrence was going to appeal to tourists. So, Bressler first tried to helicopter the seal lovers in from Prince Edward Island, but when that proved too far, he launched them from Ille de Madeleine, a tiny island outpost of Quebec, where some seal hunters live.
And he offered the seal hunters another job. If they didn’t hunt seals at all that season, they could work for him in a more comfortable job, taking Americans, Europeans and Japanese to the seals. The money worked out about the same–about $3,000 a season. But, Bressler offered a steady check–without the risk of a poor season or blowing too much money getting to the port in Nova Scotia. Bressler knows that groups like HarpSeals.org call for a boycott of all Canadian tourism. They single out the seals tours specifically because they employ hunters or former hunters. Bressler just says that the environmental movement needs all kinds of helpers and viewpoints.
At first the little community, whose tourist industry basically shuts down in winter, suspected the groups were animal activists in disuise. “They were not vey welcoming at first,” he says. He wanted to convince them they were “really there just to see seals not protest and bring an alternative source of revenue. Gradually they started to trust us.”
The baby seals are completely docile and trusting–which is what makes the hunt so easy and so revolting at the same time. Their trust also means visitors go right up to the seals, just like they were on the Galápagos. (Canadians are quick to point out that they banned hunting the pups under 2 weeks with the valuable white coats in 1987, but Sea Shepherd points out that just waiting until they molt into an uglier coat at 2-4 weeks doesn’t make it any more humane.)
The hunt is going on at the same time, but Bressler takes care to steer clear, usually going to more distant ice. One time his helicopter was rerouted over the hunting site and he did get to see the gore. He and his passengers were understandably upset.
The tours, he says, have fallen off as the protests have calmed down. The operation was never terribly profitable anyway, he says. March used to be called Seal Hunt Season but know it’s known as Seal Watch Season. “The younger people from the islands have lost the taste for this way of living,” he says. The dozens of tourists who visit every year have got to have played a part in that shift.