OPINION: An all-lady seal hunting crew

I heard Dad yell something to me from the shore. “What?” I hollered back. “Pull the back anchor!” he yelled again.

“Oh, shit. Right,” I said under my breath. I’d forgotten the simplest of boating duties. “Rookie,” I thought as I pulled up the anchor, hand over hand. I heard the splash of the cold water of the Norton Sound below and felt the slime of the green algae on the rope.

Then I turned the key, the motor of the 16-foot aluminum vessel tut-tut-tuttering to a smooth hum, and we backed up. “One of you go to the front to look for rocks,” I said to the girls. My daughter, Sidney, moved up to the bow. If she spotted a rock the motor’s propeller might hit, she’d point left or right to signal where to maneuver, a job that was mine when I was her age.

My eyes were big, scanning the surface for the seal we were chasing as I drove, my belly excited, the adrenaline pumping through my veins and out my ears. I was happy this all-lady crew — my daughter, my niece and I — were hunting together. The girls held their guns pointed toward the blue sky above us, ready. We all spotted the seal and I pointed the boat in its direction. It popped back down. Fearing hitting a rock too hard, I boated with slow caution. The seal popped up again farther out, maybe 50 feet away.

“Can we go faster?” Sidney asked, her tone loaded with the annoyance late teens are comfortable directing at their parents. “I will,” I said. Knowing we were in deeper water now, I pushed the throttle forward.

I slowed the motor when we got to the spot where the seal had popped below. After waiting half a minute, we saw its black head break the surface 30 feet ahead of us. Both girls readied. “You got it,” Katiya said to Sid. Sid fired, but nothing happened: The gun jammed. “Shoot, babe,” I said to my niece, the one I held and immediately loved the day she was born when I was 13 years old. I tried my best to sound calm and yet forceful, as I grabbed Sid’s Chipmunk, a small, no-frills rifle, to show her how to manually load the small bullet.

Katiya shot.


Too low.

The seal’s head popped back down.

Just like Dad would have done, I boated to where the seal had dipped below the surface. We waited a minute. The seal popped up again. Even closer, 25 feet to the right of the boat, curious. Katiya shot at the head; the seal was looking at us with big watery eyes. If a hunter shoots a seal with a clean shot, typically its head falls, its back floating to the surface. After Katiya’s shot, the seal’s head disappeared below.

Again we boated. And waited.

It popped up 20 feet away to the left.

“You shot it!” I said, seeing a small splotch of blood in the water where the seal surfaced. We could hear it breathing.

“Grab the harpoon,” I said, not realizing Dad’s harpoon was at the back of the boat with me. The girth of a solid shovel handle, the wooden instrument had a white float on one end and a sharp metal tip on the other, fastened to a 15-foot section of twine that unravels after a strike, tethering the harpoon tip and seal to the handle, the white float visible at the surface. I had seen these simple motions — boating to where the seal pops down, handing over the harpoon to secure a wounded seal — hundreds of times, but had not physically conducted them myself. I handed the harpoon to Sidney.

“I’ve never done this before,” Sidney said. Not with hesitation, just declaring it.

“We’ve never done this before,” I thought, but didn’t say.

She threw the harpoon and missed.

“Sometimes seals drown themselves after they’re shot,” I told the girls. “They’ll release all the air in their lungs and sink to the bottom.” Fearing this, I quickly pulled the throttle backward and pushed forward again so the girls could retrieve the harpoon floating on the water.

Maybe it’ll pop up again.

Please pop up again.

Sidney grabbed the harpoon.

The seal did pop up again, swimming, bleeding, breathing. We all wanted to end its suffering. I didn’t tell the girls to shoot it again, fearing the seal would sink to the bottom, irretrievable. I had done this once before, when hunting with my Dad. My nephew, Arctic, had wounded an ugruk. It popped up 40 yards away from Dad’s boat, too far to harpoon. I had quickly pulled up my .22 up and shot it, but instead of floating to the surface, the head and body sank. “It’ll nourish the ocean,” I’ve heard an elder say of animals lost during a hunt. It never helps me feel better.

The seal came up one more time, and Katiya threw straight and true, sinking the harpoon into the back of the animal’s neck.

It was still breathing.


“Should I shoot it again?” Katiya asked urgently. She was a new mom, and there was a tinge of sadness in her voice. Constricting, pain.

“Go ahead, babe,” I said, and she did.

Red blood floated at the surface of the dark blue-gray water. Sidney bent over the side of the aluminum hull of the boat to grab the seal by its rear flippers. We pulled it into a gray fishing tub, doing our best to keep Dad’s boat clean, then retrieved his trusty harpoon. “Thank you,” Katiya said. To the seal. To the water. To the earth. To the life and oil and meat given and the love felt when taking something precious and sacred.

Dad was at the black shoreline, his arms pointing straight in front of him, showing me where to land the boat. Later I understood that he marshalled us in where he did, because right above the bow of the boat was a large flat rock, the perfect place for the girls to butcher the seal. Hunters are always thinking ahead.

Sidney and I handed the gray tub to Dad and my husband. We laid the animal on the clean black rock, belly up, and the girls immediately got to work with their butchering knives, cutting around the flippers to begin removing the blubber and skin. Dad and his wife would later slice the blubber into half-inch cubes, to render the oil for a few weeks in their cool entryway in a five-gallon bucket, oil they’d later take out when eating nigipiaq, our traditional foods. To us, seal oil is like olive oil is for Italians: It’s healthy, providing omega-3s and probiotics, accompanying everything we harvest, process and store.

When the liver, meat and blubber were bagged, an older cousin said, “Make sure you give the seal water.” Katiya opened its mouth, revealing the tiny, sharp teeth that just 40 minutes prior were snatching herring from the ocean: Bead-sized, translucent herring eggs still dotted the whiskers and fur of its snout. She spit into the animal’s mouth, a gesture that made my chest hurt and my throat constrict. The good pain from big love. Katiya returned the head, the spinal cord and remaining organs back to the ocean. The seal would not be thirsty in the afterlife.

Laureli Ivanoff is an Inupiaq writer and journalist based in Uŋalaqłiq (Unalakleet). She recently received a James Beard Award for her writing. This piece first appeared in High Country News and is republished with permission.

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