Ugjuk — Bearded Seal

Ugjuk, the bearded seal or "square flipper", is a much larger member of the puijiit than the slender ringed seal, or nattiq. Less common than ringed seals, bearded seals were nevertheless an important prey for the Inuit, as their tough hide had many important uses. The yearly cycle of the ugjuk mirrors that of nattiq. Like the ringed seals, ugjuit maintain breathing holes through the land fast ice, which they use to survive when the ocean freezes. They generally stay farther out from land, however, in the sea ice zone where there are plenty of open leads (IOHP 439). "… During the dark period they move to the main water away from the land fast ice, but when the daylight hours return, they move to land on the land fast ice…" (IOHP 170, 439).

In the month of qangattaasat (February), when the sun has risen a little above the horizon, the bearded seals begin to tulak, or come in to the edge of the land fast ice, where they can be hunted. These shoreward movements occur shortly after those of the ringed seal. They do not stay put for long, however: "At the time the sun has come back in the winter time, they move onto the land fast ice, then when the sun is getting higher, they seem to go away". (IOHP 402, 132)

A little after the ringed seals have their pups, female ugjuit give birth to their offspring, giving this month (early May in Igloolik), its Inuktitut name tirigluit, "when the bearded seals have their pups" (IOHP 370). At this time, bearded seals are seen basking in the sun on ice floes and can be hunted by auriaq (sneaking up on them across the ice). Hunters had to slide across the ice sideways towards this seal, because if their profile became too narrow, the animal would take alarm and dive back into the water (IOHP 023).

Bearded seals are feared and respected for their strength. A hunter had to be very cautious when harpooning a bearded seal from a kayak because, when struck, it would immediately lash out with its hindquarters towards the direction of the frail craft (IOHP 181). One elder cautioned, "bearded seals were the animals that most frequently capsized kayaks, so that is why one must not get too close to them when you are going to harpoon them" (IOHP 136).

When harpooned, a bearded seal exerts tremendous force on the harpoon line, and hunters were careful not to get their wrists caught in a loop of the line, because many had lost fingers when a sudden jerk by the ugjuk tightened it around their hand. For the same reason, young boys were discouraged from playing the traditional ajaraaq (cat's cradle) string games, in case they should later become entangled in a rope while hunting (IOHP 023). Men's outer garments seldom had fringes, again to prevent them from being caught up in a harpoon line – there are many stories of hunters who were pulled into the water by bearded seals. Sometimes one could tell by observing an animal how difficult it would be to catch:

When the ugjuk comes up for air through the breathing hole, if the breath appears to be soft, that means that even if it pulls the line after you strike it will not be as strong even when it starts jerking the line, it is said that you need not be intimidated to make your strike. On the other hand there is another ugjuk that comes up for air, it will make the small opening on the conical shaped aglu (breathing hole) to whistle when it breathes, that means this particular animal is not friendly. It will pull hard and give strong jerks, this animal is very lively because of the way it breathes… Indeed ugjuit are dangerous.

Ugjuk meat was not prized as much as that of ringed seals or other mammals; it was said to be thin and unsatisfying, and the blubber was watery when burned in soapstone lamps (IOHP 439, 428). The skin of bearded seals, however, was prized for making footwear and for making thongs to be used for dogsled harnesses, dog whips, harpoon lines, and other purposes. In fact, one of their poetic names is alaksarjuaq, "the big (shoe) sole", while another is maklaq, "the one who is split" (whose skin is split to make thongs). Bearded seals were mostly hunted in the winter, as this is when their skins are mature and of the best quality before they moult in the summer (IOHP). The intestines of ugjuit could also be inflated, stretched, and made into translucent windows for igloos or huts (IOHP 146).

Like other marine mammals, the distribution of bearded seals has changed over recent years, probably at least in part in response to the noise of motor boats on the ocean.

Today the sea … is different from the past, before the area was disturbed from all the noise made by the movement of the snow machines and others, especially the motorboats in the summertime. I sometimes think that the [ringed]  seals are more receptive to the noises than the square flippers [bearded seals]. Square flippers tend to disappear more than the seals. … It is for certain that the square flippers scare more easily than the seals… (IOHP 132)