The Québec maritime Blog
Every winter, hundreds of thousands of whitecoats are born on the ice surrounding the Îles de la Madeleine. But what is a whitecoat? How and when can you observe these animals? Why are they found on this archipelago and not elsewhere? Keep reading for the answers to these questions and more.
What is a whitecoat?
Newborn harp seals have soft, white fur and are called whitecoats. Young seals of any species are also referred to as pups.
Harp seals are pinnipeds, of which there are 33 species in the world, 18 of which belong to the Phocidae family (true seals). Four of these species, including harp seals, are found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and thus can be observed in the maritime regions of Québec.
Waiting for the pups to be born...
Harp seals have a gestation period of about 11.5 months. After conception, there can be a period of delayed implantation, during which the embryo may remain in the womb for three or four months before implanting in the uterus wall. This ensures that the birth of pups is synchronized at around the same period every year (when the ice is solid enough).
The life cycle of harp seal pups
As pups, harp seals go through several distinct stages. At birth they weigh about 10 kg (22 lb) and are called yellowcoats because their fur is stained yellow from amniotic fluid. After a few days, the yellowish tint disappears and their fur turns pristine white. They’re then known as thin whitecoats. As they nurse, they grow rapidly, gaining about 2.2 kg (5 lb) a day. After about five days they’re known as fat whitecoats. By the time they’ve been weaned, around day 12, most pups have more than tripled their weight to about 36 kg (80 lb). Dark grey spots then begin to appear through their fur and they’re known as greycoats. A few days later, they begin to moult in patches. At this stage, they’re known as ragged jackets. At about three weeks, they’re called beaters because of the way they beat the water as they learn to swim.
During the first three or four weeks of their lives, seal pups cannot swim because their fur is not yet waterproof. As their mothers hunt (sometimes for as long as three hours at a time), the pups are left alone on the ice and tend to stay still in an attempt to blend into their environment. However, they remain easy prey because their mothers are unlikely to come to their rescue if they’re attacked. Once the pups have weaned, they’re left to fend for themselves on a regular basis as the adult females begin to mate.
Whitecoats on the Îles de la Madeleine
On the ice surrounding the Îles de la Madeleine, the whelping period extends from late February to early March, as the females migrate from the subarctic regions towards Greenland. Since the archipelago is on their way, at the gateway to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it’s the first possible place for the females to whelp. Because their migration route is off Newfoundland and Labrador, whelping also occurs on the Lower North Shore. Each year, somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 females whelp their pups on the ice surrounding the Islands, of which about 10,000 can be observed, depending on weather conditions and the stability of the ice.
Harp seal watching with Château Madelinot
Since the 1980s, Château Madelinot has offered an exclusive harp seal-watching package available in English, French and Japanese. Accompanied by a guide and dressed warmly, you’ll fly in a helicopter over the impressive herd of seals and pups on the ice surrounding the Islands. If ice conditions permit, the helicopter will land on the ice so you can see the herd up close! Your guide will accompany you to make sure you’re safe and answer all your questions. However, you’ll be free to wander on the ice in whatever direction you want: if you notice a particularly friendly whitecoat that doesn’t seem disturbed by your presence, you can approach it.* Be sure to also take lots of photos of these magical moments! This is an extraordinary and exhilarating adventure to enjoy solo, with friends or with your family.**
Did you know that…?
- Although adult seals are generally unperturbed by the presence of humans, it’s recommended to stay at least 50 metres (160 feet) away from these wild animals. Whitecoats, on the other hand, can be more readily approached.
- Harp seals are not an endangered species; in fact, their population has been relatively stable for over 10 years. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, there are currently about 7.4 million harp seals in the country.
- The hunting of whitecoats has been banned in Canada since 1987.
- The greatest threat to harp seals is global warming since they require a solid platform of ice on which to give birth and nurse their young.
- Seal milk is five times richer than cow’s milk.
*The excursion on the ice is well supervised, and great care is taken to ensure the seals are not unduly disturbed. You may approach the whitecoats, but it is forbidden to touch them.
**There is no minimum age to participate in this excursion; children are welcome.