Life on the ice: one last hunt for Norway’s sealers

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Campaigners believed theyd aimed the Norwegian seal hunting. But then two young filmmakers reignited a nations interest in the tradition. Ruaridh Nicoll reports

Theres not a lot of verse in killing seals not in the rifle shooting , nor in the swing of the infamous sealers club, the hakapik , not in the blood on the ice. But theres poetry into the sea. In Sealers: One Last Hunt , a Norwegian documentary film about the end of a way of life that is anathema to most of us in Europe, a group of hunters leap between the floes as the pack ice rises and falls on vast Atlantic swells, a scene that stays with the spectator like a song.

The hunters are returning to the Havsel, or Ocean Seal, a 33 m icebreaker out of Alta at the tip-off of Norway. Its hold is filled with the skins, petroleum and meat of more than 1,000 harp seals. The captain, perched in a tiny cockpit at the upper part of the foremast from which he can steer the ship, is Bjrne Kvernmo. Tall and watchful, he is 64 years old and, like a famous tennis player who shares his first name, he prefers a headband.

Later, when I gratified him, he tells me that jumping between the floes is a young person game. The ships carpenter confirms this, pertaining the story of a human who slipped between the closing ice sheets and had all the flesh stripped from his leg, adding: But the nightmare is to be caught beneath.

The ice man: skipper Bjrne Kvernmo wearing his seal skin coat. Photograph: Ingun Alette Maehlum

The film was supposed to portray an industry few south of the Arctic Circle will lament being consigned to history as the market for the fur, meat and petroleum from the blubber was closed off. But since it has started showing in Norway, something has changed. Right now, as “youre reading”, the Havsel is heading north to the pack ice is again, its hunters aboard.

Seal hunters like to stay out of the spotlight. Trude Berge Ottersen, a filmmaker from Norways south, had heard tall tale about Kvernmo from young anglers in the bars in Troms, an island city beyond the Arctic Circle. They maintained telling all these funny narratives about an old captain who was still going to the west ice to hunt seals, she says.

Ottersen was a vegetarian, despite coming from six generations of butchers. But when I was in the south and spoke about seal hunting, I realised that even people who eat meat are against it. I guessed this is a topic I should make a film about. She found Kvernmos number and called him, merely to be turned away. Hed had too many bad experiences.

Kvernmo is half-Sami, the indigenous people of the Scandinavian Arctic. His sister appears in Pathfinder , the great cinema about one of their myths. He went on his first seal hunt in 1973, at a time, he says, when if you said the wrong thing on the boat, youd be punched. There were around 30 ships killing seals, he tells me. These were handpicked people. They were all those people who if they said a word, they meant it, otherwise they would say nothing. And if they give you an order, you had to obey. He pauses. I liked those men.

It wasnt long before anti-sealing campaigners stimulated themselves felt, supported by a wave of public abhorrence at images of cuddly puppies being bludgeoned. Kvernmo says: In the beginning, in the 1970 s and 1980 s, I had strong feelings about the protesters. I felt they didnt know what they were doing and they were being misinformed by the protest international organizations and the media.

He had his argument, that this was a pure food source from a huge population of wild animals that didnt rely on the grotesqueries of factory farming. Just look at the Inuit people of Greenland who live on seal meat. They are never sick. When you give them the food we feed they get sick. The argument wasnt being listened to. We didnt understand. We thought we could stop them, he says.

Kvernmo learned to be wary and, “as its”, sealing was just a small part of his life at sea, the season only running during April and May. He ran as crew on other people boats in all the icy places of the world until eventually, in 2004, he bought the Havsel, getting it cheap because it came without fishing licences and had been lying unused for nearly three years. It would be his route back into a hunting that everyone else was giving up.

Ottersen drove the six hours north to Alta and turned up next to the Havsel. As I had travelled in so far he invited me in, she says. But I still got a No. It was only when she attended a seal-hunting course in Troms that he changed his mind, saying: And so, you are really enthusiastic about such projects? She said yes and was in.

Heavy oceans: the 33 m Havsel heads north to the hunting fields. Photograph: Bjrne Kvernmo

Its Spring 2015, and the Havsel is slipping out of its northern fjord. Kvernmo is at the helm, supported by a young first mate named Espen Brandal, who comes from a long line of sealers and resents his heritage dying. Fiscal pressure on the Norwegian government has considered the subsidies that the seal hunters rely on whittled back, attaining the trip-up a liability before they even set off. This means handpicked men are hard to find, and Kvernmo is worried about a rookie, Hkon. He could hurt himself, he says, because this is dangerous work. Very sharp knives and hookings, and powerful handguns and winches.

Also on board are Ottersen and her filming partner Gry Elisabeth Mortensen. After a few days at sea, the Havsel approaches the ice where the seals, having pupped, are lying. The ship remains downwind so as not to spook the animals. Gunmen, employing. 230 and. 270 calibre rifles, shoot the seals in the head at a distance of up to 150 ft, a accomplishment when barge, ice and seal are all moving.

The crew are then dispatched on to the ice where they jump between the floes until they reach the seals. Employing their hakapiks, they hit them once with the notch on the blunt side to ensure they are dead, and then they spike them with the other, dragging them back to the boat. You cant send everybody down there, says Kvernmo. Youve got to have young people in mint condition to do that. This part of the process is gruesome enough. In Ottersen and Mortensens film, the camera persists on blood frozen to icicles on the vessel gunwales. But then it actually get dark. The seals are flensed, the scalps rinsed in the sea and then laid flat in the hold and covered with ice. The blubber and meat is packed.

Amidst the killing, the Havsel faces down the climate. At one stage, they make a run for Iceland in a force-out 9 gale. The crew are thrown across their cabins, walls of water beyond the windows. It was like there was no gravity, says Mortensen, whose open face belies a very northern, somewhat scaring outlook. The floor was the wall, and you were thrown out of bed, and you lost all sense of control and you only had to go with it.

All through their bruises and puking, the crew has to check the boat for damage. When the barge is spinning round and you have to go down to where you have flattened all the skins, its a horrible fragrance and the scalps merely slide from side to side, says Ottersen. That was the worst part.

View finders: directors Gry Elisabeth Mortensen and Trude Berge Ottersen whose cinema Sealers One Last Hunt was screened at Troms International Film Festival. Photo: Ingun Alette Maehlum

They reach Iceland, the blizzard stimulating the port township look like the last place on earth. And here Kvernmo tries out the rookie, who swiftly determines himself on coast, abandoned. He is told to find his own way home and that he can have a couple of tubs of seal meat, If we do well enough. Kvernmo tells me later: I am sorry about that. But if you dont have the right people, you get accidents. And they can be bad accidents. You have to be careful.

There are other astonishing scenes. A polar bear intersects the ice, jumping up and down on the seals and throwing them around. The hunters follow, killing the maimed seals, then skinning them. When at last the ship returns to the Norwegian coast, it travels from port to port selling the meat to locals, often elderly people, who emerge from their houses seeming circumspect and quietly filling buckets with the dark meat. By the closing credits, it feels like a hell of an attempt to get some dinner, omega-3 petroleum and a new pair of shoes.

The death of the Norwegian sealing industry has been a great victory for groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare( IFAW ), which was founded in 1969 to stop the hunt in Canada. Its campaign has scored victory after victory, stopping the killing of puppies less than two weeks old the astonishingly cute white and fluffy babies then get seal products banned in the US, the EU and even Russia.

As the markets dried up, it was only government subsidies that remained and so, in 2014, victory was declared in Norway, and the focus turned to Canada and Namibia, where huntings are still supported. Politicians capitalise on the seal hunting to make it definitely sounds like they are doing something for the coastal communities, says Sheryl Fink, IFAWs director of wildlife campaigns in Canada. But the subsidies could be much better used to look after those communities.

Blood on the ice: hunters in Canada drag dead seals back to their ship. Photograph: Stewart Cook/ Rex Features

The Norwegian premire of Sealers: One Last Hunt was in the main cinema in Troms, the Fokus, during Januarys Troms International Film Festival. The city was soft under a permanent snowstorm. Other cinemas in the festival is dealing with Observer -friendly subjects. Ambulance , for example, followed a rescue crew during the Israeli assault on Gaza, and there was a movie about life in the triangle of death in Iraq. The festival is a glamorous event in a sophisticated city, astutely scheduled during the course of its sunless winter darkness.

And while there are those in Troms who, softly, make plain their distaste Should we make a sentimental film about the last days of slavery? whispered one it was soon apparent this was not a widespread view. The screening stirred something deep within the people. A photo booth had been set up in a bar with props including a hakapik and a stuffed baby seal, and even the hunters themselves( along with Scandi jumpers and fake moustaches ). The local papers headline the next day was: Troms women go crazy for sealhunter sealfies. At the screening, the hunters who turned out in numbers took to the stage and were cheered to the roof. The cinema went on to win the celebrations audience award.

It turns out these northerners think we, in the rest of Europe, are phonies. Eating seal is not politically correct, but for me its better than feeing chicken and all those animals you dont know have had a good life, Ottersen tells me. People in the cities want to be eco- friendly, but it is a shell they put on. She is no longer a vegetarian: But I never feed meat more than once a month and I only eat game.

Stimulating their phase: members of Action Against Seal Hunting protest in Oslo, calling for a complete ban. Photograph: Erlend Aas/ PA

Kvernmo had brought the Havsel to Troms for the screening, tying up alongside the multimillion dollar trawlers and oil ships, and invited me for dinner onboard, along with his daughter Elisabeth Rasmussen. A film director and producer in her own right, she says she is more at home in Los Angeless Chateau Marmont than on a sealing ship( despite looks a lot like Queen Nooka from Noggin the Nog ). Kvernmo sets several pans on the table, one full of potatoes, another of mushy peas and the third full of chunks of seal meat. I opt a flipper, biting off more than I can chew. It tastes like venison, only even richer.

Its fair to say Rasmussens relationship with her father is evolving, and she says watching the cinema has induced her understand him better. She didnt know him until, aged 10, she was feeing breakfast in her mothers house in Troms. A local angler was being interviewed on the radio, she says. I recollect I was chewing when my mother said: Oh, its your father speaking.

She wrote him a letter. He invited me for the Easter holiday in Lapland. I walked into this house full of children and my aunt was really warm and I actually connected with this family. She remembers her parent pointing at a girl of the same age and saying, That girl, she can wrestle a baby reindeer. You should do that. I replied: But I dont want to wrestle the newborn reindeer. I want to cuddle it.

Northern exposure: a seal hunter leaps on to the ice to retrieve a carcass.

I think having his daughter on board for the first time pleases Kvernmo, but he doesnt present it, sitting with the crew until eventually moving over. He reckons, in their own lives, he has spent 10 full years on the ice for various reasons. Today it is melting away, he says. Before, when we sailed to the east coast of Greenland, wed fulfill the ice perimeter after three days. Today, we have to sail four days. The last three years, its been faster. Everyone who works on the ice sees it.

In the movie, on their last day on the ice, Kvernmo tells the crew to put away the handguns and he heads out to track the animals in a small boat. It was a beautiful day, Ottersen says, We had been hunting for many hours and then Bjrne said: I want to film living creatures because I think this is the last time I am here. He had this real pacifies and he was just sitting there with a coffee, appearing. When we came back to Havsel there was this beautiful light and seals all over the place, hundreds lying on the ice.

Except, it turns out that wasnt the last period. Following its consideration of Sealers , the cinema was given a general release in Norway. Ottersen and Mortensen have spent the past months touring the country with their sealfie photo booth. By the end of February, word reached Kvernmo that the government would offer a subsidy were he to make another journey. And merely a couple of weeks ago, the figure was set at Kr2m, simply short of 190,000.

Cold comfort: Skipper Bjrne Kvernmo and his daughter Elisabeth Rasmussen. Photograph: Ingun Alette Maehlum

I call and find him preparing the Havsel. The crew is ready, he tells me. There has long been a stres of pro-sealing sentiment in the Norwegian government, so it is difficult to tell exactly how much difference the movie has induced( Ronny Berg, the Norwegian nation secretary for fisheries cancelled an interview for this article ), but Kvernmo feels its been effective. This cinema has succeeded all over Norway, he says. All the seats are full and everyone likes it.

The Havsel is likely to be the only boat going out, the only one to get a subsidy: We had the best proposals for selling the skin, blubber and meat ashore. And things are looking up, says Kvernmo: The value of blubber is increasing the petroleum is very good for your body. We cannot export it to EU, but maybe well be able to export it to your country now youre not in the EU any more.

And then the old captain says, is again, it will be his last trip. I dont like to go any more for sealing. Ive worked too long with it, and I dont feel comfortable with it We run this year because everyone is talking about it and wants us to go. Right now, he is steaming north.

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