When a ringed seal pup wakes up, all she sees around is blue ice. From the first moments of her life in an ice cave to venturing out to the Arctic on her own, every step of the pup’s journey is described in a new children’s book titled “Natchiq Grows Up: The Story of a Ringed Seal Pup and Her Changing Home.”
The book released in December follows Natchiq — which means “ringed seal” in Iñupiaq — who lives in her snow cave, or lair, on the sea ice in northern Alaska. By the time the ice starts breaking up, Natchiq has grown up enough to leave her mother, Siku, which translates as “sea ice.” Now Natchiq will live independently.
Besides telling a touching story, the book weaves in Indigenous knowledge, Iñupiaq terms and scientific findings, in particular in the Kotzebue Sound region.
“It is a children’s book for the younger kids, elementary-aged kids, or maybe even kindergarten,” said lead author and University of Alaska Fairbanks wildlife biologist Donna Hauser. “But it can be accessible to older ages as well.”
“It appealed to me to have this split level: The story that was about a ringed seal, but then underlining what cool animals they are and what they have to do to make a living, and what it really means to be a seal in the ocean and some of the challenges that they face,” said co-author Kathy Frost, a retired biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Ringed seals are the only Arctic seals that can make a living in the sea ice cover, with mothers building lairs on top of the sea ice under 6 feet of snow and digging holes with their claws to breathe, Hauser said.
“This book is giving kind of a peek into what’s happening in those lairs, in a place where not even scientists, not even knowledge holders or hunters necessarily get to see,” Hauser said.
The idea for the book came from research that took place at the beginning of the 1980s, said Frost, who led that research. Back then, scientists traveled to Northwest Alaska — Norton Sound, Cape Lisburne, Kotzebue Sound — to learn more about the habitat that ringed seals were using to build ice caves for their pups.
To find the animals, scientists followed the example of Canadian hunters who used dogs to sniff them out. That’s how researchers decided to bring along Labrador retrievers.
“Hunters knew that seals lived in ice caves because they found them when they were out of the ice in the spring. The biologists use those same techniques to find out how big the caves were, and how many individual seals might use a cave, and where were they formed, and how long did they last?” Frost said. “We were trying to look at what kind of habitat ringed seals needed to have their pups.”
Since then, scientists have been partnering with the Iñupiaq people to learn more about the ringed seals, their behavior and their response to the changing habitat.
“The whole body of research biology has been obtained by hunters and scientists working together,” Frost said. “They’re not from different universes. They’re just different ways of looking. And it’s very powerful to bring them together.”
But the original research, done back in the ‘80s, was not recorded, Frost said. Years later, the North Pacific Research Board encouraged proposals to rescue old data, to provide a permanent record that would be available in scientific literature, she said.
Frost, together with Hauser, recorded the results of the 1983 study. Then they started talking about spreading the word about the research — through newsletters, school curriculums and school workshops. Then they thought about creating a children’s book, to pique interest in the research among the youngest readers, Frost said.
“None of us have actually written a children’s book” before, Hauser said.
“It was a learning experience,” Frost said. “We were very naive. But it was a really interesting journey.”
The easy part was the science — sidebars and background in the book, Frost said. The most difficult was to come up with a storyline that was compelling, engaging and appropriate for a child.
One major theme that the authors needed to frame carefully was climate change — specifically, how thinning ice and shrinking snow cover influence seals’ ability to build lairs and protect their pups.
For building lairs, seals prefer land-fast ice that’s attached to the shore, is more stable and persists longer in the spring, Frost said. While they can, and sometimes do, build lairs in the ice offshore, those conditions are less stable and the survival of the pups is lower, she said.
“I think ringed seals are going to persist well into the future, but there may be fewer of them because we don’t have as good of ice conditions for them to have their pups,” Frost said.
While scientists still don’t have a good current estimate on the ringed seal population size, they have listed them as species of concern, Frost said.
Environmental changes that affect the seals also affect the hunters relying on animals for meat and oil for food, as well as skin for building boats, making clothes and hard-bottom maklaks.
Kotzebue hunter and contributor to the book Cyrus Harris said that traditionally, residents used to go out on the ice in February to hunt for ringed seals, but with conditions changing, it is more and more challenging to do each year.
“Winter hunting is nonexistent basically, now that the ice is not super reliable,” Harris said.
The theme of climate change is not at the center of the new book, but it is present, especially in the sidebars and in the last section, Frost said, “to provide some background for a parent who’s reading a book to a child so they can answer questions.”
The book is now available for purchase, and all royalties will go to a fund for youth programs at the Native Village of Kotzebue. A set of free books will also be distributed to schools in Alaska’s northern coastal communities this year.
“We hope it will be useful for people,” Frost said. “On one level, letting children read about — in the case of Kotzebue children, or Alaska children — an animal that lives in their backyard, and tell them a little bit more about that animal on a bigger picture. Kids that aren’t from Alaska (would be) realizing that seals are cute and fuzzy, but they’re also food for people, and that’s not a terrible thing; that’s a really valuable thing.”
The authors also hope the book will inspire more children to become scientists.
“Science is a cool thing to do,” she said, “and it’s not only just a cool thing to do for personal reasons, but it’s a really productive thing to do in terms of helping the world around you.”