Conducting the 19th Century Seal Fishery

The commercial spring seal hunt was one of Newfoundland and Labrador’s most dangerous and demanding industries in the 19th century. Those who participated in it had to be experienced seamen who understood the habits of the harp seals they hunted. They also had to be courageous or daring enough to work in the hazardous and inhospitable conditions of the North Atlantic ice fields. Sealers welcomed the work because the hunt extended the period in which they could earn money beyond the summer codfisheries.

Sealers towing pelts to the ship, n.d. Sealers towing pelts to the ship, n.d.
Sealers spent up to 12 consecutive hours on the ice, often walking long distances across unstable ice pans.

Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 25.01.010), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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Sealers spent up to 12 consecutive hours on the ice in cold and sometimes stormy weather, often walking long distances across unstable ice pans. Nights were spent in dirty, cramped bunks aboard crowded vessels. Illness and injury were common, as were deaths from drowning or exposure to the elements. Despite these risks, sealers were not guaranteed a profit from the hunt. Vessels could become trapped in the ice before reaching the seal herds, or were sometimes unable to find the herds at all. Nonetheless, there was much competition among men wishing to work as sealers throughout the 1800s and the limited space onboard sealing vessels filled up quickly.

Sail and the Seal Hunt: 1790s-1860s

In the spring of 1793 the first two schooners sailed from St. John’s to the North Atlantic ice fields to hunt seals. The voyage was a success and prompted other merchants and investors to launch similar trips. Soon, hundreds of sailing ships and thousands of men were participating in the commercial seal hunt off Newfoundland and Labrador’s eastern coasts. The industry proved lucrative, becoming almost as profitable as the colony’s saltfish trade.

Sealers, however, had to work long hours and adapt to the harsh environment of the ice floes if they wanted to bring a successful harvest back to the island. These men were primarily cod fishers who used the spring seal hunt to supplement their earnings from the summer fishery. Anyone wishing to participate in the hunt applied to merchants for berths aboard their sealing vessels; these were usually awarded on Boxing Day.

Although vessels did not leave for the floes until March, sealers began preparing for the trip shortly after Candlemas (2 February). Much of this involved physical labour as the men cut and hauled timber to build punts – small row boats the schooners brought to the ice floes each season – or helped reinforce schooners’ hulls with extra beams to reduce damage from sea ice. The weeks leading up to the voyage also gave sealers time to repair their boots and equipment, while wives, mothers, and sisters contributed by patching jackets and mending other articles of clothing.

Sealers packed few items for their journey. For clothing, they brought a canvas jacket, woolen sweaters and mitts, tweed or moleskin trousers, heavy underwear, a cap, goggles to guard against ice blindness, and sealskin boots with studded soles for increased traction on the ice. Each sealer also brought his own equipment, which consisted of a gaff for killing the seals, a knife for skinning the carcasses, and a tow rope for hauling the pelts to the ship. The gaff was a two-metre long wooden pole with an iron hook and spike attached to one end. The men struck young seals across their noses with the gaff to kill them. They also used the instruments for balance in jumping from one ice pan to another, to make sure the ice was safe for walking across, and to help pull any sealers who lost their footing out of the water.

Hauling pelts with gaffs and tow ropes, n.d.
The men struck young seals across their noses with a gaff to kill them.

Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 25.01.016), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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Sealers hauling pelts with gaffs and tow ropes, n.d.

Arriving before the pups left the ice, however, was often difficult. Storms were frequent in March and could easily delay or sink a schooner. The vessels also became jammed in sea ice quite frequently. When this happened, the ship’s captain ordered his crew overboard to pound at the ice with their gaffs and axes. Sealers also stomped or jumped repeatedly on the ice to break it with their own weight while clinging to ropes hanging from the ship’s bow. It could take days for the men to free the ship and many had to spend long hours knee-deep in icy water.

On the Ice

Once the captain found a herd of seals, he ordered the men off the ship to bring back the pelts. Usually the sealers walked across the ice to the herds. However, if the ice was very loose and wide sections of water lay between each pan, then the men rowed to the herds aboard small punts. Any time away from the main vessel was dangerous as sudden storms or fog patches could separate the men from their schooners. To safeguard against this, crewmembers still onboard the vessel banged frying pans, struck pieces of wood together, or made other loud noises to help guide lost sealers back to safety. Nonetheless, deaths were not uncommon and the men had to maintain a good sense of direction to survive.

Sealers on the ice by their ship, n.d. Sealers on the ice by their ship, n.d.
Men could lose their footing and fall into the water or become lost in sudden storms and fog patches.

Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 25.01.005), Queen Elizabeth II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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Upon reaching a group of seals, the hunters killed the whitecoats with their gaffs and removed the pelts with their knives. They also cut two slits in each pelt to thread their tow ropes through. Each rope could haul between three and seven pelts, and each pelt weighed about 22 kilograms. Pulling such a heavy load across the rough ice required tremendous strength; not only was the ice jagged and difficult to walk across, but the sealers frequently had to haul their catch for kilometres before reaching the ship. Once the whitecoats had grown old enough to swim away, the sealers began to hunt young (beater) seals and adults. This was done with a gun instead of a gaff and the men now worked in teams of three; these consisted of a gunner and two assistants, known as ‘dogs’. Gunners were experienced marksmen who aimed for the seals’ heads to kill them instantly without damaging the pelts. The dogs, meanwhile, carried gunpowder and skinned the seals after they had been killed.

The men worked on the ice from daybreak until nightfall, returning to the ship every now and then to unload their catch. Once onboard for the night, however, living conditions were little more comfortable than those on the ice. The men slept in small, dirty, and uncomfortable bunks below deck. By the end of a trip, these quarters were filled with the grime and stink of seal blood, human blood, grease, and wet clothing. This gave rise to frequent bouts of infections and illnesses. One of the most common and painful was known as seal finger. A victim’s finger became swollen and red for a few weeks before healing in a crooked position. Most sealers attributed this infection to the handling of seal pelts.

After about seven weeks at the ice, the sealing ships returned home. Some of the more successful vessels made two or three trips to the ice in that period. If a crew harvested a full cargo of whitecoats, they sailed home early to unload their catch before returning to hunt older seals. Most schooners, however, were in their home ports by the end of May to prepare for the summer cod fisheries. Once on the island, the vessel’s owner claimed half of the total catch and divided the remainder equally among the sealers. The owner also paid the captain based on the number of pelts brought to shore or on the weight of the catch.

Steam and the Seal Hunt

The advent of steamers in 1862 greatly changed the seal hunt. The ships were larger and stronger than schooners and could travel deeper into the ice fields. Schooners could not compete with the newer vessels, and each year arrived at the floes in increasingly small numbers. The steamers, however, did not make working conditions any more safe or comfortable for sealers, who now had to help maintain a constant supply of coal to the ship’s engine room. Coal dust clung to the men’s skin and permeated the air. Bunks aboard steamers were still cramped and dirty, but were made even more uncomfortable by the constant presence of coal dust.

Work on the ice also changed. Although the men still carried the same equipment, they often spent longer hours on the ice. Steamers, because of their speed and larger crews, could drop off more sealing parties at greater distances than ever before. Although this allowed a single ship to cover more ice, it also meant the sealers were often not within walking distance of their vessel and could not return throughout the day with their catch. Instead, a process called ‘panning’ evolved, whereby the sealers dropped their pelts off at a designated ice pan – instead of the vessel – before returning to the hunt. At the end of each day, the steamer picked up its crew and visited each ice pan to retrieve the pelts. Although more efficient, this practice increased the likelihood that sealers would become lost on the ice in the fog or a sudden storm.

The Florizel flag on a pan, post-1908.
Panning was a process whereby sealers dropped their pelts off at a designated ice pan before returning to the hunt.

Photographer unknown. Reproduced by permission of the Archives and Manuscripts Division (Coll. 137 25.01.008), QE II Library, Memorial University, St. John's, NL.
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A pan of seals under the Florizel flag

When the sealers returned home in May, the catch was again divided among crew and ship owner. Sealers, however, now only received one-third of the catch instead of one-half. Although this was initially not a problem because steamers harvested more seals than schooners, individual pay rates eventually decreased as the seal stocks became depleted near the end of the century.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2007, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

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