• April 23, 2014

Jennifer Hayes: A Seal Encounter Brings a Change of Heart

Jennifer Hayes and her partner David Doubilet spent two years photographing the ecosystem of Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence for the story “The Generous Gulf“, appearing in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine. For about ten days, they worked with harp seals in and under the ice near Magdalen Island.

The harp seal females give birth to their pups, called white coats, on the ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in February. The female will nurse the pup for 12 to 15 days. Then, she will abandon the pup so it learns how to eat, swim, and become a harp seal all on its own. It’s a tough beginning in a tough environment.

A female harp seal coaxes her white-furred pup off the ice to swim near Prince Edward Island.
A female harp seal coaxes her white-furred pup off the ice to swim near Prince Edward Island.

It was our last day of the expedition. David and I jumped into the ice-filled water and went in different directions. I found a baby harp seal on the edge of the ice floe looking for its mother. The mother swept past me in a fury of fur and coaxed the white pup into the water a few feet in front of me. They met underwater with a nose-to-nose “kiss” of recognition, a behavior that allows them to identify themselves. Are you my mother? Are you my pup?

I kicked along with the mother and pup as they swam for the safety of another ice floe. The curious pup would try to swim toward me and the mother used her flipper to physically hold it back. As we moved through the ice, the pup and I became closer and closer. We stopped and the pup climbed onto me to rest. I floated on my back as the pup sprawled heavily on my chest, and its face nuzzled my mask.

A female harp seal with pup in the Gulf of St. Lawrence above Prince Edward Island, Canada.
In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Hayes documented bonding between a mother seal and her pup, behavior rarely photographed in the water.

Moments later the pup rolled off. I was shooting like a crazy person when something nipped my left ankle and then my right. I looked down and saw several male harp seals circling beneath us. A male had “tested me” by biting my ankle to see what I was and why was I with a female they wanted to mate with.

I was thinking everything was under control when another big male scrabbled up and over my back pushing me underwater and taking my mask off as he slid over my head. I grabbed my mask as it sank in front of me, clumsily cramming it back onto my face and trying not to drop the camera.

There was an eruption and blur as the female harp seal dove down and battled the male as the pup and I huddled together watching from above.

She surfaced and swam toward us grunting and snorting seal sounds. I was shocked when she began to push the pup and me through the water using her body, head and flippers to guide and propel us. I could not synthesize what was happening. I am a skeptic at heart, wary of stories about how an animal appeared and pushed, pulled, or guided a person to safety. Skeptic or not it was happening. The female harp seal was physically moving the pup and me away from the aggressive males circling below us.

A female harp seal with her pup in the Gulf of St. Lawrence above Prince Edward Island, Canada.
A mother seal swims with her pup.

The female harp seal headed toward a 4-foot open water lead through the ice. The lead was too narrow and the ice can crush a person like a pumpkin when the two pieces drift together. I ducked under the female and watched the mother and pup swim away through the opening.

I was sad to see them disappear but I was exhilarated, excited and pumped-up on adrenaline as I kicked to the edge of the ice where I put my camera up onto the ice shelf. I was reaching down to unbuckle my weight belt when a male harp seal swam like a rocket from under the ice shelf and bit me square in the groin. He bit hard and shook. In a blink he let go and turned his head and bit my thigh. In another blink he let go, leaving a good gash in my thigh. Before I knew it I was standing upright on the ice in my weight belt wondering what happened.

I have a memorable scar but it’s not the bite that I will remember. I will remember the mother harp seal battling the male beneath us and then rising to guide her small pup and I away from aggression. I can’t explain why it happened. I can only embrace what happened and share it.

See more photographs from Jennifer Hayes and David Doubilet in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

There are 71 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Astrid Wevers
    July 22, 2016

    Wauw, such nice moments, such fantastic photographers!

  2. Aurora Ford
    May 7, 2015

    cool ! i wish i could have been there.

  3. Alberto
    May 21, 2014

    Que bella historia nunca se olvidara

  4. Tim
    May 20, 2014

    One of the things animals need sometimes is compassion and species difference is no barrier.

  5. Dena Mcmurray
    May 19, 2014

    Amazing story, and one I’m sure you will never forget!! We have one that WE will never forget!!!! You probably remember that one too!!!

  6. Devon
    May 5, 2014

    Way cool! Beautiful pictures

  7. munya shmup
    May 2, 2014

    wel lads hah

  8. jay domian
    April 28, 2014

    Beautiful photos, beautiful story. I’m sorry duck person, you don’t make much sense to me. Of ‘course’ any animal is important. Brigitte Bardot’s self harm issues, if she had them have nothing to do with her caring about animals or her being an activist. It’s sad if it was true. She is probably a lovely person, and I thank her for all she’s done. Hunting is not necessary, in most cases, anymore. We are not cavemen. There are other things to keep us warm beside another animals skin & fur.

  9. Ashley Nan
    April 28, 2014

    WOW beautiful story.

  10. Jenifer Rendahl
    April 27, 2014

    Mother Nature at it finest! Awesome story thanks for sharing your encounter & capturing some first glimpse photos, well done…also glad you’re ok.

  11. Henriette Schalekamp Roux
    April 27, 2014

    Amazing nature … so, so touching

  12. duckmckay
    April 27, 2014

    you were in a war zone and I guess that is your profession and I imagine you are a daughter and or a mother; I can say; I could not knowing risk a seal bite for a picture; so kudos to you; they are spectacular…. I have in my possession; since 1972; a baby seal pelt and a baby seal set of gauntlet gloves; (which provide me amassing warmth to hands and butt in my car; here in the west during 42 winters) procured by hunting indigenous animals by indigenous people for survival; and if you had died; where would this story have ended up; with your camera at the bottom of the Gulf; whom is the predator here and whom is the prey; it is not you; I have an issue with it is the reader commentary which values your way of making a living over the hunter; whom is trying to feed a family or produce income to buy another roll of sausage or film….. there is no morality in nature just a species need to fill a void; and in most cases fill that eco void with beauty;
    and off coarse as in the case of the whale/cod fish; should we ever threaten a species…. hunters and poachers/fishermen should themselves be hunted to extinction……..to value a seal over a cod fish is just silly human sentimentality; to be back at one’s mothers breast….. which is off coarse is a moral question nez pas!
    that the destruction of the cod fish mother; is not a pictorial essay is sad…… loving a seal pup as Bridget Bardot did with her sexy photos to end the seal hunt (1972) was ironic….this woman activist had had a serious issue with self harm……not even the arctic lemming is quilty of suicide, it is just we the hunter; wannabe vegetarians and so Jane Goodall has just printed a book to save the plants…..and I agree with her; kill the weeds and save the seeds before bill C-18 gives the right to Monsanto’s to own life and destroy farmers lives and threaten food security….. and on that positive note; farmers kill more life per say to bring you grain; than any
    hunter… and hunters were the original environmentalist and habitat protectors; and we love animals as much as any petition signer; long term; and the only species to create more environmental destabilizing unbalance than farmers and hunters; is you and I……….the urbanite; as a hunter, farmer, meat eating, fish eating, plant eating, omnivore……balance is the key to conservation; who ate all the cod; not the seal nor the photographer??

  13. dian
    April 27, 2014

    Amazing story,
    thank you for sharing this story

  14. Lillian Song
    April 27, 2014

    Mothers: brave, strong, selfless, instinctive…loving.

  15. Jorge Luis
    April 27, 2014

    Increibles fotos, un gran reportaje, Felicidades!!!

  16. Patricia Lapointe
    April 27, 2014

    Absolutely amazing and utterly touching.

  17. mojmine
    April 27, 2014

    Awesome!!! Mother nature has it’s own way in protecting it creature..

    If the intention of the mother seal is to keep it’s pup away from jennifer she must have shove jennifer away from her pup the first time they came near together, but it the end she battled those male seals though it wasn’t pup who’s being attacked.

    Such a nice and inspiring story..

  18. Renuka
    April 27, 2014

    Suuch species may not have the capacity of mind to think, yet what’s so amzing is the acuteness of their senses, and instincts in protecting their offspring…marvelous hands-on experience…and a beautiful story, yet so daring !! wow!

    April 27, 2014

    Thx for the amazing photos!!!

  20. Daisy Varan
    April 27, 2014

    wow an Awesome expression and totally touching story

  21. Rokas
    April 27, 2014

    Check this out, it’s the same harp seals which are being killed every year in Canada… http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-clothing/fur/canadian-seal-slaughter/

  22. kakanyera
    April 27, 2014

    motherhood redefined

  23. jay domian
    April 27, 2014

    Awesome photos and experience. <3

  24. Sanjna Pawar
    April 27, 2014

    Amazing photography!, and the story gave me goosebumps.. wow!

  25. J
    April 27, 2014

    once in a life time experience.. envy.. no words can express the wonders of nature.. you got to experience it and be there.. wish i’m one of those..

  26. Farid
    April 26, 2014


  27. saikumar
    April 26, 2014

    Happy ending.. 🙂
    Mom, you are the best!!

  28. Kate
    April 26, 2014

    Truly stunning photographs. Some of the most beautiful and artistic I’ve seen.Thank you for sharing these and an amazing story to go with.

  29. cg jung
    April 26, 2014

    @dolapo: even the male harp seals? Think about it…

  30. SpyrosKek
    April 26, 2014

    This i being a mother. Human or animal, the mother’s instinct is to protect and this is something beautiful!

  31. Glendale Daly
    April 26, 2014

    What a beautiful story and these magnificent baby harp seals are clubbed to death sickening

  32. Willim Quinn
    April 26, 2014

    I always pay extra attention when I see Doubilet’s name; now I know to look for your name too. Love the photos & storytelling.

  33. sabine
    April 26, 2014

    Simply amazing and courgeous.

  34. Bill Koller
    April 26, 2014

    In the real sense of the word: Awesome.

  35. Petra
    April 26, 2014

    If more people would respect animals, we could read such wonderful things every day.

  36. nagla hussein
    April 26, 2014

    There is many things that happen we don’t know why but you should thank God. he sent you those angels to prevent some thing worst could be happening to you the kid was the reason that pushed the mother to save you during saving her baby at last we must thank God for this lesson at. that time

  37. Altina Talpade
    April 26, 2014

    That’s what being a mother is all about. The beauty is that when it extends beyond one’s own offspring to another species. Amazing!

  38. kristina
    April 26, 2014

    What an amazing and spiritual story! It is so neat to here how amazing mother nature truely is! Thank you for sharing!

  39. Val
    April 26, 2014

    Beautiful story

  40. Alan
    April 26, 2014

    I have to concur with Clare that the female was teeing to guide Andy protect her pup, and you simply benefited from proximity. Too much to believe that female would be trying to help you when she and her pup were I’m danger Morgan likely from the aggressive makes and you were also a stranger that her pup was too close to. Her goal more than likely was to guide the pup away from you, not to help you.

  41. Rosario larrea
    April 26, 2014

    Beautiful , thank you…… Namaste!

  42. Colleen
    April 26, 2014


  43. Lucinda
    April 26, 2014

    You took a huge chance & wow to be attached by the males. Hope your hip has healed OK.
    Would have been amazing to see that interaction with the baby & Mom, for her to also want to protect you is amazing.

  44. Julie
    April 26, 2014

    amazing story and beautiful photo’s!!

  45. Carol
    April 26, 2014

    Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing a wonderful story.

  46. Dolapo
    April 26, 2014

    An amazing story that touches the heart. A reminder that all things created are beautiful.

  47. Beth
    April 26, 2014

    Such an amazing story, to be immersed with those creatures like that! I’ve heard of dolphins protecting humans from predators, too.

  48. joyce
    April 25, 2014

    Incredible photos…precious experience! For wording to match your excellent photography, use “moving her pup and me”; “guiding her small pup and me.” The rest are in subject position, so are fine with “I”.

  49. junnu ravi kumar
    April 25, 2014

    Give ur instagram or blogger link so that we can see more photographs 🙂

  50. Melanie
    April 25, 2014

    They are so beautiful. I’m so ashamed to be Canadian each year when they go out and club them to death. I’ve been signing petitions so stop the seal hunts for years. After living in the east coast of Canada for a year, I was disappointed to learn that my fisherman neighbours all hated them and blamed them for eating all the fish.
    So like humans, just blame it all on something else.

  51. Janet
    April 25, 2014

    Awesome story! So amazing how the female included you in the mix. She probably watched her pup come to you when it needed a rest, and saw you were a friend, not an enemy… maybe that’s why she was determined to help both you and her pup. Thanks for sharing this amazing story!

  52. Wayne
    April 25, 2014


  53. PERRY
    April 25, 2014

    Everyone should see this posting. Nature is so very beautiful!

  54. James Edward Johnson
    April 24, 2014

    amazing story

  55. yong
    April 24, 2014

    what a cute little baby harp seal it is
    I’d like to see him on person.

  56. kathy franz
    April 24, 2014

    absolutely beautiful in pictures and storytelling very captavating

    April 24, 2014


  58. Kyle
    April 24, 2014

    why were you interfering with the mother and the baby seal in the first place? I believe this is where you got yourself in trouble. If you kept your distance more than likely the males would have left you alone.

  59. Agus
    April 24, 2014

    Loved the story! It made me feel like i was there

  60. Marie Moore
    April 24, 2014

    Beautiful story. I can see by these photos the mother was comfortable with the photographer and very likely was guiding her away from danger with the pup. Very similar to an earlier story of a photographer and a leopard seal attempting to feed the diver/photographer a penguin.

  61. Margaret
    April 24, 2014

    The scars are there to remind you that this actually happened. So you don’t think that you believe more than what was real.

  62. Sade
    April 24, 2014


  63. Juan luna
    April 24, 2014

    Incredible story…i love animals more than others species….

  64. christina
    April 24, 2014

    real touching!

  65. Sharon B
    April 24, 2014

    I do underwater photography for a hobby, but this photographer had a lot of courage in that freezing water and with those seals that could do a lot of damage. But for the sake of photographing these wonderful creatures it’s worth it.

  66. Sandy Pittendrigh
    April 23, 2014

    Good story. Very good story. But don’t you mean me instead of I above…in several places?

    • Alexa Keefe
      April 24, 2014

      Thank you for your keen eye! The post has been updated.

  67. juan cruz
    April 23, 2014

    fotografías magnificas, se nota esa pación por mostrar al mundo lo que unos pocos pueden ver y admirar . gracias por las fotos. suerte en tus próximas expediciones. saludos de un futuro fotógrafo de naturaleza.

  68. margot
    April 23, 2014

    Happily blown away

  69. Clare
    April 23, 2014

    Is it possible intention was to guide her pup and you were just close enough to be included?

  70. MARTIN
    April 23, 2014

    Harp seal , the female are affectionate. Nice and captivating

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