How to See Harp Seal Pups in Canada

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Last update: February 14th, 2021 at 05:17 pm

Harp Seal Pup on Ice
Image Credit: Léa Sanche Lefebvre/Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine

I share this post with my fellow wildlife lovers – who will travel to the remotest of lands for the chance to see something truly remarkable.

Did you know that each year, during the very short window of late February to mid-March, it is possible to spend several hours observing beautiful, fluffy, newborn harp seal pups on an ice pack in the middle of Canada’s St. Lawrence River?

Helicopter on Ice Pack St. Lawrence
Image Credit: Léa Sanche Lefebvre/Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine

Canada’s Harp Seal Nurseries

Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

How is this possible you might ask?

While there are 3 harp seal populations in the world, the largest of the three (the Northwest Atlantic group) spend summers between the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and winters near Newfoundland or the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Harp seals need to birth their young on stable ice and do so at the end of February to mid-March. The two primary whelping areas in Canada are on the ice packs off the Northeast corner of Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Quebec’s Magdalen Islands (Îles de la Madeleine).

Baby Harp Seal on Ice Pack
Image Credit: Léa Sanche Lefebvre/Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine

Female harp seals can birth 1 pup a year. These whitecoats (as the pups are called at this stage) spend their first 10-12 days being nursed on the ice before being weaned. They are then left to fend for themselves as the mothers go off to mate. Their fluffy white coats begin to moult at weaning and disappear by the time they are 3 weeks old.

Fun Fact: A harp seal mother recognizes her pup by scent.

Mother harp seal with pup
Image Credit: Léa Sanche Lefebvre/Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine

How to See Harp Seal Pups in Canada

While it’s not easy, nor even guaranteed to be possible every year due to the effect that climate change is having on annual ice packs…for the lucky few who manage to get there when the conditions are right, it is the experience of a lifetime.

To admire these beautiful pups, one must first reach Quebec’s Magdalen Islands. Les Îles de la Madeleine (as they are known in French) are a little archipelago located smack dab in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Lighthouse in the Magdalen Islands at sunset.
Image Credit: Meggy Turbide/Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine

Harp seal pup watching tour packages are offered through the charming seaside hotel of Château Madelinot on Île du Cap-aux-Meules – one of seven inhabited Magdalen islands. Packages typically include accommodation, full or partial meals, a helicopter ride to the ice pack to see the pups with an expert guide, and optional extra activities such as ice fishing, snowshoeing, and hiking.

How to get to the Magdalen Islands in Winter

There are 2 ways to get to the Magdalens during the winter months.

  1. Take the 5 hour CTMA ferry ride from Prince Edward Island to Île du Cap-aux-Meules. Please note that this is an estimated time. An icebreaker is sometimes needed to clear the path for the ferry and this can slow things down (a little, and sometimes a lot).
  2. Pascan Aviation offers flights to the Magdalen Islands (YGR) from 4 Quebec airports (St-Hubert, Quebec City, Mont-Joli and Bonaventure).

Why You Need to Go Soon

Quite simply, because climate change is real (hopefully this isn’t still up for debate). Although Château Madelinot has been offering excursions to see the harp seal pups for 40 years, they have had to cancel tours due to insufficient ice in 2011, 2016, 2017 and most recently in 2021.

Note: The decision on whether or not to proceed with the season and tours is made two weeks before the start date.

Harp seal pup on ice - Magdalen Islands, Quebec
Image Credit: Léa Sanche Lefebvre/Tourisme Îles de la Madeleine

How to Have a Successful Trip

One thing I have learned over the years when planning trips to see elusive wildlife or other natural phenomena is that it is helpful to avoid building your trip around one single event. (Can you tell I’ve been disappointed before?)

You may want to consider planning a winter trip to Québec with the harp seal tour as the icing on the cake. Québec is absolutely marvelous to experience in the winter (as long as you dress appropriately for the weather).

You could catch the final weekend of the Quebec Winter Carnival (mid-Feb), spend days exploring the neighborhoods of Montreal, or head to a Québec ski resort for some alpine fun.

See also:

Learn More About Harp Seal Tours

As mentioned, tour packages are offered by Château Madelinot. For more information and future dates, please see their website.

National Geographic has an excellent account of the experience on their website by someone who has visited the harp seals by boat as well as by helicopter. See the article.

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