While Canadian seas are home to nine species of seals, three of the most bountiful in the Arctic are the ringed, harp, and bearded seal.
Other marine mammals may garner more attention than the demure ringed seal, but few play as integral a role in Inuit society. For nearly four millennia, Inuit have relied extensively on natsiq, the smallest and most common marine mammal in the territory.
Traditionally, the ringed seal (which gets its name from the irregular, light-colored rings with dark centres that characterize adults) was the main staple of the Inuit diet; its skin was used as clothing, its blubber fuelled the soapstone lamps that provided both light and warmth, and its intestines, a delicacy to Inuit, were even used as containers and igloo windows. The skin also furnished harnesses for huskies, and soles for kamiit (boots). While the animal is no longer used to this extent, the ringed seal is still an important food source for the people of Nunavut, who also use the skin for boots and mitts, and less frequently, parkas, pants, and even artwork.
The ringed seal’s importance in Inuit culture is largely the result of logistics. In addition to being the only seal that spends the entire year in the Arctic, ringed seal populations also number well into the millions. In spring, seals haul themselves through cracks and breathing holes in the ice to bask in the warmth of the sun. Often you’ll spot several of them sleeping together, though you may find it difficult to get very close to them. They are fitful sleepers, rising every few minutes to scan the horizon for potential danger.
You’ll find ringed seals far more daring in their aquatic element, however, often popping their inquisitive heads out of the water to observe passing boats. Still, they are somewhat difficult to spot in ice-free waters. The ringed seal is ubiquitous in Nunavut, populating arctic and subarctic waters. A few venture as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Slightly larger than ringed seals, harp seals are distinguished by the black, harp-shaped saddle on their backs. Harp seals have never been as vital to Inuit as ringed seals, probably because they stay farther from shore. About 500,000 of them summer in Nunavut, migrating north when the sea ice finally yields in spring. They return south to warmer waters with the coming of autumn.
Inuit call the harp seal qairulik. This species of seal has a penchant for porpoising and frolicking in arctic waters. They are found mostly in the eastern part of the territory, ranging throughout Foxe Basin, northern and eastern Hudson Bay, Hudson and Davis straits, and the northern parts of Baffin Bay.
The ugjuk, or “square flipper,” as the bearded seal is sometimes called, is unique among Nunavut’s seals in that it is a bottom feeder, eating crustaceans, mollusks, worms, hermit crabs, and clams. Despite the energy the animal expends to attain its food, the bearded seal nonetheless grows to great proportions, maxing out at 350 kilograms.
Unlike more gregarious harp and ringed seals, bearded seals are usually found in pairs or small groups instead of large herds. These dark grey creatures spend most of their time on fields of drifting ice, diving 50 to 200 metres for food below. As their English name suggests, bearded seals are distinguished by the long, drooping whiskers around their mouths.
Despite their great girth, bearded seals are the most cautious of all Nunavut’s seals. On the ice, they will head for safer pastures underwater long before humans get very close. In the water they are slightly braver. Often they’ll allow your boat to get within several dozen metres; especially brazen individuals may even circle your vessel for a closer look before disappearing with a splash.
Bearded seals can be found throughout Nunavut, especially in shallow waters.
*Reproduced from an article titled “Marine Mammals” by Mike Vlessides contained in the Nunavut Handbook.