Words By: Jody Steeves
A few days ago during our first-ever, exploratory floe edge trip, I slipped into the Hudson Bay waters perched in a kayak, paddle in hand. I’ve paddled her waters before but never this time of year. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The floe edge had already enraptured me, the light, the ice. A huge ice island had run aground on the ocean floor near the spot we chose to test her spring waters. It made for a breathtaking backdrop, almost iceberg-like in appearance except for the jumble of ice pushed on top of it in a storm.
The day we chose for this inaugural floe edge paddle was perfectly calm, the waters glassy. Slack tide and no wind made for beautiful ice reflections in the water and the glass was only broken by the cadence of my paddling and the ripple of my bow. That was until another creature joined me. A bearded seal appeared only a short while after I began my paddle.
Bearded seals can weigh anywhere from 500-800 lbs and measure 8-12 feet in length. They are named for their long whiskers, which are likely used to find clams and sea cucumbers on the ocean floor. They are also known as ‘square flipper’ because of the shape of their fore flipper.
At first, I only heard his spiralling trill, one of the distinct sounds they make to navigate their underwater world. I could hear his calls all around as he swam under me and past me, and then he broke the surface just meters away. He dove and swam under my kayak just barely beneath me, turning onto his back to look up at me. He surfaced and dove on every side, sometimes bobbing at the surface or stretching his neck high to see over towards the ice where everyone else was watching. Once he even sprayed me with water when he snapped his tail skyward before diving down. He continued for a long time as he investigated me and his captivated audience. Males perform elaborate vocalization displays underwater which helps to deter other males and attract mates. This is likely what we were hearing prior to his appearance above water, as it was prime mating season for bearded seals. A male bearded seal’s song can be heard 20 kilometres away. I wonder how far away my friend was before surfacing beside me.
Eventually the seal dove and didn’t resurface near me. He had finished his investigation and perhaps was feeding or off to serenade a female seal. They can dive for up to 25 minutes which affords a lot of feeding time in the shallow Hudson Bay waters. I sat and listened hoping to hear his song again before paddling back to escort my first kayak tour at the floe edge. Sure enough, off in the distance, I did hear him again, much fainter and further away.
Paddling at the floe edge for me is about the ice-scapes. Ranging from the huge ice island to its fractured smaller floating islands behind it. The floe edge has many kinds of ice, newly reforming grease ice and brash ice. The layers are beautiful and I was mostly focused on getting a picture of my bow with ice floating around it, until the surprise seal. This surprise encounter added a new appreciation to the beauty of the floe edge and while I came for the ice-scapes, I stayed for my new friend.