Nattiq — Ringed Seal

Nattiq, the ringed seal, is the most common marine mammal in the Arctic, and the mainstay of life in many Inuit communities, particularly those of the eastern Arctic and the northern islands. The meat, blubber, skin, organs, and bones of seals traditionally served as food for people and dogs, fuel for lamps, coverings for shoes, containers for storage, toys for children, and numerous other purposes. When the Inuit refer in English to "seal", they almost always mean nattiq, the ringed seal. There is no Inuktitut word for "seal" in general. Instead, each species has its own distinct name. The ringed seal, in fact, has several other poetic and sacred names, including anmiaq, "the one who makes breathing holes", uqsulik, "the one who has blubber", and qisiligaarjuk, "the little one who has skin" (Randa 1994).

The Inuit cycle of yearly activities is closely tied to that of the ringed seal. Events take place earlier or later in each community depending on how far north it is located. In Igloolik, the cycle begins in late February or early March, as the sun reaches higher and the land returns from the winter darkness. This is avunnit, the month "when premature baby seals are being born". Although the days are now bright, it is still extremely cold, and most of these pups do not survive. Then in March-April comes nattian, the month "when the seal pups are born". This season heralds joy, for spring is around the corner and hunting efforts are productive (IOHP 370, 187, 397).

Because they pursue seals almost year-round, the Inuit have many different techniques for hunting them. The first, used throughout the winter and early spring, is mauliq. This relies on a thorough understanding of the winter habits of seals. Although they live in the water, seals must surface regularly to breathe. In the winter, when the ocean is covered by several feet of ice, the seals maintain breathing holes, known by the Inuit as aglus. Each aglu consists of a hole in the ice, which the seal keeps open by surfacing regularly to breathe in it, preventing it from freezing.

Although the hole penetrates through the thick ice to allow an air chamber, it is not completely open to the outside. Instead with the seal's splashing, it gradually becomes roofed over by a dome of ice known as a nunataq (IOHP 094). On thin, new sea ice, these domes create small lumps on the surface of the ice, which are particularly visible on sunny days. Later on in the winter, however, the ice thickens and snow accumulates, covering the dome and making the aglu invisible from above (IOHP 439). Inuit trying to locate hidden breathing holes used specially trained dogs to sniff out the holes – the same method employed by seal-hunting polar bears.

Unlike Inuit hunters, however, polar bears often do not catch seals directly through their aglus. Instead, a bear may begin by clawing a second hole partway through the ice next to the aglu, leaving the ice cone intact over the breathing hole. When the seal arrives, the aglu therefore appears undisturbed, with no light streaming through it from a broken ice cone. This prevents the seal from being alarmed, and increases the bear's chances of success as it plunges its head through the thinned ice of its "secondary" hole to grab the seal. In areas of thinner ice, the bear will attack directly through the breathing hole, but it will again dig partway through the ice ahead of time, so that when it dives after the seal it will be able to break through without difficulty. Breaking all the way through the ice cone would be too obvious to the seal, alarming it and preventing it from using the hole.

Each seal has several aglus, which it visits in turn in order to keep them all open. It arrives at a hole facing upstream against any water currents that are present in that area of ocean. This is particularly true in areas of new sea ice, less so under the thick landfast ice. As it rises in the hole, it exhales first, then usually breathes in once or twice before submerging again. Sometimes it may remain in the hole for longer, breathing silently. When it surfaces in an aglu, the seal always faces in the same direction, and often leaves scratch marks from its flippers on that side of the hole. The marks, all located on one side of the aglu, serve as bearings for the animal, indicating the direction in which it must travel to reach its next breathing hole. The hunter, poking into the hole with a carefully shaped piece of antler known in Igloolik as a siukuarssiut, can feel these marks, and sends other people to that direction to make a disturbance. If it notices anything unusual at one hole, the seal avoids that hole and visits another instead. By creating disturbances at all other holes in a particular area, the hunter can ensure that the seal rises at the hole he is watching. By examining all the holes in one general location for scratch marks, a hunter can build up an accurate picture of the movements of the seals in that area (IOHP 439, 412).

In order to catch a seal, the Inuit need to be warned of when the animal is in the breathing hole, as it is invisible from above. This used to be done in one of two ways. In areas of thin ice, a seal indicator called an ajautaq was inserted into the centre of the aglu. When a seal poked its head into the hole, the ajautaq was pushed up. This signalled to the hunter to harpoon the seal. When the ice and snow buildup was thick, a device called a qiviutaq was more effective. This used a piece of rabbit fur or, preferably, a thin filament of snow goose down inserted into the hole on a stiff piece of caribou tendon. When the seal's head broke the water and it exhaled, the down flew upwards, immediately being sucked downwards again when the seal inhaled. It was important to use such indicators, because opening the hole to the air and looking directly into it would alert the seal to the danger and result in it choosing a different hole. On very thin, clear ice, the presence of a hunter would cast a shadow visible to the seal, making successful hunting very difficult (IOHP 439). Seals also have an acute sense of hearing, especially underwater where sound travels well. A hunter waiting at a breathing hole could not even drop a mitt on the ground for fear of alerting the seal to his presence. One hunter relates, "my father … had instructed me against putting my mitt on the ground. So then when a seal started to blow, I inserted a bullet into the chamber, I started to aim at the seal below, but I thought I might drop my mitt… I took it, and ever so gently, I started to place it on the ground. At that moment the seal splashed and fled".

Occasionally, it was necessary for a hunter to look right into a hole. In these cases, smell was also a consideration, for if a seal detected a human scent, it would be alarmed. However, a seal's first action on entering a breathing hole is to exhale, during which time it cannot smell effectively. This gave the hunter time to harpoon the seal before it became alarmed. Even if the hunter was slow, he still had a good chance of success, because the seal's exhalation forced most of the old air out of the aglu chamber, blowing away the human scent before the animal could detect it (IOHP 256).

The Inuit distinguish many different kinds of aglus: holes made in new ice and still open to the air; holes in thin ice covered only by an ice cone; and holes in old ice covered by both ice and deep snow. Different names are also given to breathing holes depending on how close they are and whether they are in landfast ice, old sea ice, or newly frozen leads (IOHP 101, 094). Finally, not all holes serve only for breathing – some are used by the seals to climb up on the ice to bask in the sun, others open into dens hollowed out on top of the ice but under the snow.

As soon as the ice forms in early winter, many seals swim to inshore bays where they can create aglus for the winter. Later on, some seals come up out of the water, through their aglus, and hollow out dens under the snow. Bull seals in particular often do this, coming up out of the water particularly on milder, overcast days when the outside temperatures are not too severe. One man from Igloolik, George Kappianaq, remarked that the smell from the den of a bull seal is unmistakable: "… it smells awfully strong when it is a breathing hole of a bull seal, to a point where it makes you choke from smelling it" (IOHP 414). The term for a male seal, tiggaq, in fact, is associated with smelling bad, and the meat of bull seals during the fall breeding season is considered by many to be distastefully strong (Randa 1994).

In the months of avunniit and nattian (roughly late February to early April), first bulls and then female seals begin to come up out of the water, through their aglus, and hollow out dens under the snow. Here they can lie on top of the ice, hidden from above and protected from the freezing winds. Inside this relatively cozy den each female seal gives birth to her pup, which remains there until it is ready to swim in the ocean. Polar bears and humans with their dogs both take advantage of this, and seek out hidden dens by smell. Arctic foxes often frequent dens, hoping to capture a young pup or a polar bear kill, and their droppings act as indicators of the den's location. In shallow snow, hunters can also identify aglus by their raised roofs, and then locate the exact spot by tapping the snow crust and listening for the echo that indicates a hollow den.

On reaching a den, hunters and polar bears alike break open the ice covering by jumping on it. Then they can quickly seize the pup. Inuit hunters observe that some dens are small, and these dens belong to seals which are vigilant and protective of their pups; these seals will rapidly come to get their offspring when the den is broken into – allowing them to be caught as well. Other seals are less attentive to their young, and in some cases these pups will have excavated a larger area inside the den, perhaps through boredom or searching for food. The seals from these dens are slower to respond when their young are taken. The most successful seal pup hunts take place when the pups are very young, while their umbilical cord is still attached and they have not yet grown a thick layer of blubber. Later on, the pups grow more capable and dive quickly into the water when their den is broken into (IOHP 094, 242).

As the snow melts later in the spring, aglus become exposed, making it much easier to find them (IOHP 162). In fact, these holes in the ice become critical to the melting process: as the snow melts over the ice, a layer of slush and water several feet deep forms on the surface. This makes travel either by sled or boat next to impossible. The aglus now serve as "drain holes", allowing all the surface water to run in streams along the ice and off through the holes. These streams eat away at the ice, forming deep ravines that are hazardous to the traveller (IOHP 101).

The cycles of the moon cause variations in tides and ocean currents, which in turn affect the activities of marine mammals. Fluctuating water levels cause leads in the ice to open up, allowing seals to breathe at the surface of the open water. The Inuit, following the seals, were always disappointed when this happened, as hunting through aglus was much easier, and could only be done in calmer periods when the leads had frozen back over, forcing the seals to resort to breathing holes once again. This happened mostly during the waning period just after the full moon (IOHP 180). Some areas always have more or less aglus than others – seals appear to avoid areas of particularly fast currents (IOHP 276). They also move around less under the land fast ice than the sea ice, and their aglus may be farther apart (IOHP 054). In some areas, such as Igloolik, aglus are interconnected under the ice in groups, while in other areas this is not so (IOHP 065).

During the dark period, most marine mammals, including some seals, move away from the land-fast ice and out to the sea ice where there are more open water leads. Even if the leads begin to freeze over, the seals can make breathing holes in the new ice without difficulty (IOHP 054). When daylight returns and the weather warms, the ringed seals (followed by bearded seals and walruses) begin to leave the ocean to bask in the sun on top of the ice (IOHP 170, 146). This allows the Inuit to practise another method of hunting, known as auriaq. In order to harpoon or shoot a basking seal, the hunter must crawl up on hands and knees or belly until he is within range, being extremely careful not to alarm the seal. Often elbow pads made of polar bear hide are used, as the bear fur slides easily along the ice without making any noise (IOHP 439). When seals first come out to bask in very early spring, they are fat and inattentive, but later they lose weight and become more alert and irritable, and consequently more difficult to stalk by auriaq. Timing the hunt properly is also important because in the late spring or early summer, seals start to moult, and their skins become unsuitable for many uses, such as making whale-hunting floats, kayak covers or footwear. On the other hand, the membrane beneath the skin grows thicker as new fur grows in, allowing the thickened membrane portion of the skin to be split from the fur side. This material, which is only obtained during the summer weeks of saggaruut (July), was used to assemble tent covers, and seals caught at that time were prized for tent-making (IOHP 136, 370).

In open water, one could hunt ringed seals by kayak. They are less shy than other marine mammals, and can be approached when floating on their backs. It is safe to talk or make noise in the air, but one must avoid splashing with a paddle or making any other sounds that can be transmitted through the water (IOHP 136). Ringed seals are said to be afraid of narwhals, which they perhaps mistake for killer whales when they hear them. As the seals flee from the whales, they are driven towards the shore where they become easy prey for the Inuit instead (IOHP 456). Many ringed seals are eaten by polar bears, and some also fall prey to carnivorous walruses (IOHP 136).

Ringed seals are said to eat mostly kinguk, small shrimp, and uugaq, cod. When it finds a school of cod, the seal does not rush into the middle of it and disperse the fish, but instead picks individual fish from the outer edges, keeping the group together in one place as long as possible (Randa 1994).

Because they lived in salt water, ringed seals were thought to suffer from continual thirst. For this reason, when a seal was caught, whether by mauliq, auriaq, kayak or another method, fresh water was poured into its mouth (IOHP 155; Randa 1994). This water was meant to quench the thirst of the dead seal and appease Sedna, the being who lived under the ocean and allowed the marine mammals to be caught by humans. Along with bearded seals and walruses, the ringed seal was created from the joints of Sedna's fingers when they were cut off by her father. Many other rituals and taboos surrounded the hunting and preparation of seal. For example, in some areas, boys paying visits to other families were advised not to stay too long, because if they did then the seals might remain underwater too long and not surface at their breathing holes to be hunted (Randa 1994).