Jan 29, 2018

"Själen" – Seal Hunting in the Northern Baltic Sea


The following post is intended as a more academic source of information on traditional sealing in Finland and the Northern Baltic.

1. A reconstructed "seal-iron", which essentially is an harpoon used by sealhunters in the Åboland archipelago.
"Själ" is the common word for "seal" in the east-Swedish dialect spoken along the coast of Southwest Finland. The word also referes to a"soul" or a"spirit". There has been many stories in local folklore of seals being the reincarnations of people lost at sea. Seals have, nevertheless, had an important role in the livelihood and culture of coastal peoples in Finland, Sweden and Estonia. Several studies of traditional sealhunting in the northern Baltic Sea have been undertaken by Swedish and Finnish ethnographers and historians. The seal hunting traditions of the Gulf of Boothnia between Sweden and Finland have received a lot of scholary attention as sealhunting in that area was an important source of income an a very integral part of community life well in to the 20th century. There is a wealth of information available on this subject, however a langugage barrier has made it difficult for people not fluent in Finnish or Swedish to partake in this material. Still today very little of this has been translated to English.

Although many of the impliments and techniques used in sealing are similar across the northern Baltic, there are a many localized variations in the manner of how and when seals were pursued. There are also regional variations in terminology regarding seals and seal hunting. Swedish speaking coastal communities in the areas of Finland, Sweden and Estonia were active pursuers of seals in the northern Baltic region. Seal hunting was, however, not exclusive to Swedish maritime culture as Finnish speaking communities along the Bay of Bothnia, the province of Satakunta as well as the east part of the Gulf of Finland in the Saimaa lake-system and Ladoga, also engaged in sealing.

2. Main seal hunting areas in the Baltic Sea.

This article presents a summerized history of seal hunting in the northern part of the Baltic Sea. For the purpose of making it easier for fellow academics to find the exact sources I have employed the Harvad In-text referencing system in this post. The published sources cited in the article are predominately written in Swedish or in Finnish.

Prehistory of seal hunting in Finland

Historically, seal hunting has been a significant mean of livelihood for people living on the coast of Finland. Stone Age-people were quick to settle in the newly formed islands of the Southwestern Archipelago in Finland as result of the post-glacial rebound after the last Ice Age. Seal hunting and fishing provided a lifeline for the first permanent inhabitants on the islands and the coast of Finland.
3. A 21cm long harpoon head was found within the remains of a harp seal  in Närpes, Finland . The seal had been harpooned in winter in it´s brething hole in the Gulf of Bothnia, some 17km from the coast. The seal was mortally woundend and sunk to the bottom around 4000BC. The harpoon is made of elk leg bone. KM10087:1, NBA.

The Fagervik site in Pargas in the Åboland Archipelago is believed to be a neolithic sealhunter-camp. A stone encircled fireplace and fragmets of quartz and clay pots were recovered at the site. Pieces of burnt sealbone was also found, indicating that the people did sustain themselves on seals. The site was dated to 2800-2450 BC. (Asplund 2000:14-25). Much older seal hunter habitation sites are found in the Åland Islands, going back as far as to 5000 BC (Storå 2001). 

4. Locations were neolithic bone seal harpoons have been recovered in Finland.

Evidence of three different species of seals are found among the archaeological material from several neolithic sites in the Åland-Åboland archipelago; the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), the ringed seal (Phoca hispida) and the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus). The harp seal population was reduced during the late Neolithic period and was completely gone by the end of the Bronze age at 500 BC (Wallin & Sten 2007). Some sources do claim that the harp seal survived in the northern Baltic Sea until the early Middle Ages.

5. Overhunting can in part have caused the disapperence of the Harp seal from the Baltic Sea Basin.

The ringed seal and grey seal were hunted well in to the 20th century an were at the time classified as vermin due to their impact on fisheries. A overhunting of the population in combination with low fertility rates caused by environmental pollution resulted in a population decline and a ban on all hunting. Today licensed hunt of grey seals in Finland is allowed. 

6. Medieval sealhunters on the pack ice of the Gulf of Boothnia by the Swedish geographer and historian Olaus Magnus. published by Antoine Lafréry in 1572

Seals were hunted intensively during the Middle Ages in the North Baltic Sea. Seal meat was at the time a valuable commodity, stored and salted in barrels. Its popularity as food was in part due to the Catholic Church which viewed seal as fish, thus making it available for consumtion during periods of fasting. The economic significance of seal meat is supported by the mention of seal tithes from Åland in the 1330s (Talve 1997:75). Further records also indicate that seal hunters in the Gulf of Bothnia were taxed as early as in the 14th century. Seals were pursued mainly with harpoons, but there is evidence for the use of clubs and it was also possible that nets were used to either trap or catch seals. 

Hunting methods

Seal nets

The first historic accounts of nets used for catching seal derive from the 18th century, although there is archaeologal evidence for the use of seal net as early as from the late Mesolithic in Finland. On the Swedish island of Gotland two types of nets were used for cathing seal; standing nets (Ståndnät Swe.) and laying nets (Liggnät Swe). Locally nets were referred to as "stubbar". Flat rocks along the coastline, at a distance of 50-100 meters from the shore would attract seals that used the stones frequently for resting. In some cases special wood frame boxes filled with rocks were erected close to the shore by farmers to attract seals. Seals resting on the rocks would be caught with nets. The standing net was placed in a half circle around the stone on the sea side. The seal would approach the rock from the beach side and crawl up facing the sea. If the seal was startled it would dive in on the sea side of the rock and get tangled in the net. 
7. A seal net hanging in Gåshälan, Närpes, Fnland in 1926.

The laying net, also known as "slagnät", was placed around the seal rock in a circular fashion and tied to two turning beams which were anchored down on the outer and inner sides of rock. This type of net was made out of coarser thread and had smaller mesh size than the standing net as the function of this net was to hinder the seal from escaping, rather than entangel it. The inward beam was tied to a rope which reached the beach. The net was laying on the bottom as the seal approached the rock. Once the seal was laying on the rock the hunter would pull the rope lifting the net to the surface and effectively entrapping the seal in what would appear a net-basket.(Klein 1930:142-143, Wallin & Sten 2007:32)

8. The Ostrobothnian Long Net.

Johannes Tengström recognised four different types of seal nets that were in use in the Gulf of Bothnia in a academic paper he wrote in 1747; (1) long net, (2) barrage net, (3) cross net and a (4) pole-long net combination. The long nets were set next to steep seaside cliffs, one end towards the land and the other towards the sea. The barrage net was set in a half-circle around the seal shallows at the edge of the sea. The shorter and deeper cross net was used in wintertime in cracks and holes in the ice, as the seals stayed near these. The pole-long net combination consisted of several nets attached to a pole and was used in inlets and gulfs where there were ringed seals. 

By the end of the 19th century only one type of long net remained in use in the Gulf of Bothnia. In the Åboland archipelago a net with a 30cm wide mesh was used for catching seal, mainly ringed seal. The net was around 10 meters long and 3 meters wide. Typically nets used in Ostrobothnia had large, clublike floats.
9. An Åboland seal net with wooden winter floats, called "dolls" in Korpo Local History Museum.
The nets used in the Åboland archipelago as well as parts of the Åland Islands and the Roslagen archipelago were equipped with two types of wooden floats. The more common float was a straight piece of spruce, around 30 cm long. The float tapered towards the ends and was scorched to keep it from rotting. Typically seals were hunted with nets in late autumn as days became darker and seals were not able to see the nets under water. The smaller ringed seals were more commonly caught in nets than the large grey seals. Gunnar Andersson, a native of Utö island in the Åboland archipelago, maintained that when the seal, which more often was a ringed seal, swims in to the net and feels it brush against its snout, will immediately start to twist it's body like a cork screw in order to untangle itself. At this point the ends of the floats will tangle in the mesh and the net wraps thightly around the seal, effectively immobilizing it and therefore drowning it. The net was attached to a rock or another object so that the drowned seal could be retrevied.

10. Owner´s mark on the float of a open water sealnet from Pargas. The spruce floats were often scorched to prevent rotting.

Another type of wooden net floats, the “dolls” (Swe. dockor) were used when nets were set under ice. The anchor shaped floats would not get caught in the ice as easily as the straight ones. As winter approached it was believed that ringed seals would approach land as the first snow fell to "look at the snow". Ringed seals give birth to their cubs on sea ice and it is possible that seals are indeed curious to know if the snowy beach is land or an ice sheet. Nets were often placed across channels and narrows straight which the seals were known to use. At the Island of Jurmo the nets were pushed out from the shore using long staves.(Andersson 2008)    


Seals were also trapped using large steel traps. The trap was attached to a weighted wooden frame and baited with fish. The trap set and placed under water, often in connection with fishing nets that had been visited by hungry seals (Gustafsson 1971). This was also an effective method to remove problem seals and deter others from approaching fishing nets.

11. A sealtrap with complete wooden frame and how it is set by baiting it with fish and sinking it below the surface.

A type of framed net-cage or a weir were used to catch ringed seals in along the east coast of Sweden. These traps were baited with fish and set afloat. When the seal swam in to the trap and pulled on the bait the lid would fall down and trap the seal (Klein 1929:143).
12. Seal weir from Gävle, Sweden.


Seal hide was used for clothing and bags, but in later times shoes made of sealskin were the trademark signature of people living in the outer archipelago. People born in sealing communities before or during WW2 remember that it was common to use seal skin shoes during their childhood. The sealskin shoes or moccasins (Swe: Sälskor), were renowned for their ability to withstand wet, but because they were made out of untanned hides the shoes were prone to stiffen. To soften them people would pour water mixed with tar inside the shoes. Sealfat could be boiled to produce seal oil which was also an important commodity. It was commonly used mixed in to paint. Seal oil was also used as feed to livestock such as pigs and horses during winter. 
13. Sealskin shoes or moccasins were a common and practical piece of clothing. The Fishing and Hunting museum of Bosund.

Ice hunting

Sealhunting was more intensive in the Gulf of Bothnia were boatloads of hunters from Sweden and Finland would spend weeks at a time hunting for seals on the pack ice in the early spring months.In Åboland hunting remained more small-scale and also more primitive. The harpoon remained an important weapon in Åboland and the seal spear (Swe. väckare) which was used in the Gulf of Bothnia was virtually unknown in the archipelago. Typically seals were hunted by villages and communities in the outer rim of the archipelago. During winter hunters would venture in small numbers on to the ice, 
14. A hunter laying on top of his Skridstång while aiming his rifle at a seal laying besideside it´s breathing hole. Gulf of Bothnia around 1900
The methods used for sealing both varied depending on the season and location. In the Gulf of Bothnia and the Kvarken seals were mainly hunted on the pack ice. Kvarken (Swe. Kvarken) is the narrow region in the Gulf of Bothnia separating the Bothnian Bay from the Bothnian Sea. The distance from Swedish mainland to Finnish mainland is around 80 km. The Kvarken seal hunters’ hunting grounds extended from the northern islands in the Sea of Åland to the Bay of Bothnia in the north. Sealing was an important source of rewenue for the Swedish crown, made evident in King Gustavus Vasa´s open letter of 1551 to the Ostrobothnians in which the king granted the hunters the right to pursue seals throughout the Gulf of Bothnia, including its western parts. The voyages the hunters undertook on the spring ice could last for months. These voyages were called "Fälan" (Swe.) Thanks to the long-distance option, the hunters were not dependent on local or regional ice conditions; they would go and find the areas where there were seals available. In normal winters, hunting started in the south and proceeded along the coast of Sweden northwards towards the Bay of Bothnia. The hunt continued until the ice melted completely. If the catch was good early on, the hunters could return home and prepare for another trip.

15. A sealspear (väckare) on top, a three prong hook for catching the mother seal and a Gulf of Finland style small seal harpoon head. The Arctic Museum Nanoq. 

The hunting trips among sea ice were made possible in special sealing boats called “fälbåtar". The word fälbåt is a dialectal variant of the word färdbåt, meaning a travelling boat. As the name suggests, the boat was built for long routes. The boat was fitted with a mast and sail and the stern was high and the keel had a slant towards the prow. The specially design hull was capable of breaking through two inches of ice. The shape of the keel also made it easier to pull the boat on top of the ice. Once pulled up on the ice the boat was used as a base camp by the hunters who could remain with the boat for weeks until the ice around melted and they sailed home. Usually a hunt would start in late March and the hunters would return home in early May. Between 1400- and 1900s the sealing boat was the most abundant type of boat in the Gulf of Bothnia area because of its versatility in changing ice conditions. On the island of Bergö the sealing boats were built of spruce, a light wood. According to a 1600-century source the keel was made of reaction wood pine, which is a hard and resinous wood that slides well against the ice. A spring hunt could result in a catch of several hundreds of seals. In 1910 two sealing boats from the Island of Replot in the Vasa archipelago managed to bring in 500 sealskins during a single spring hunt. This figure was, however, extraordinary and usually 100 seals was considered anexcellent catch for a single boat. 
16. A early 20th century photo of a crew of seal hunters from Replot, posing on the ice in front of the boats along with their guns and seal spears or pikes. 

The seals on the sea ice of the Gulf Bothnia were mainly shot with muzzle loading rifles made by local gunsmiths. A hunter was all dressed in white and would approach a seal laying on top of a special hunting sledge which had the appearance of a long ski called a Skridstång (Swe.). 
17. A demonstration of the use of the Skridstång ski. The hunter is hidden by the whote cloth which only has a little hole for the gun. The Arctic Museum Nanoq.

The ski was fitted with a fork in which the gun was placed and it was also fitted with a piece of with cloth or a white calf hide which was strung up in front of the ski. This would enable the hunter to approach the seal without being seen.  The ski was often four meters long and could be used to cross cracks in the ice. On some islands in Åboland a modified sledge would be used for a similar purpose.  The previously mentioned seal spear became the single most important tool in seal hunting in the Gulf of Bothnia and it was used to retrieve and pull out seals that had been shot but were able to slide back in to their breathing holes. The seal spear resembles a harpoon, but the head is permanently fixed to the haft.
Sealhunting was a very arduous task before the advent of fire arms. An account by Olaus Magnuss in 1555 describes how hunters in, dressed in black skins, would mimic the behavior and bellowing of a seal on ice in order to advance on their prey. The hunter was armed with a harpoon and once he was close enough to the prey he would leap up and hurl the harpoon at the seal. It is said that people of Runö island in the Roslagen archipelago were able to throw the harpoon with considerable accuracy at a distance of 20 fathoms (Swe. famn), equivalent of 38 meters. It would seem more likely presume that 20 meter and less would be a more realistic distance for a hunter to attempt a kill. Dogs were also used to find breathing holes on the pack ice. The Italian priest and traveler, Francesco Negri visited Sweden in 1663 and noted that “dogs as large as small bulls with oblong heads were used to hunt seals. The dogs were also reported to bark like wolves, have sharp teeth and have long hair on the eyebrows and around the snout, resembling a mustache.  However, the dogs used to track seals   
18. A caught seal pup is strapped in an hook-harness while the seal dog is observing. Suursaari in the Gulf of Finland in 1924.

Even on ice or on dry land, the grey seal was a formidable foe and clubbing it was no easy task. As weapon the primitive club or kölva were the most used. Once clubbed the seal became unconcius and the hunter proceeded to cut the jugular vein.The first strike had to be a clean hit as it was believed that a glancing blow resulted in the seal "getting its blood in the stomach" and would almost invincible. Another version of the same belief is that the seal would "pull the lard over the head" and thus protect himself from further blows.(Nyström 2000:72-73)  

19. Hunters in the Gulf of Finland taking a brake amidst the pack ice and cooking some afternoon tea.

A story from Roslagen tells of how a large grey seal was laying on the ice, unable to get to open water. Seven men armed with "kölvas" attacked the seal but were unable to kill it as the seal was able to disarm all men by skillfully grabbing the kölvas in his jaws and then laying upon them. (Klein 1929:146) 

A story from Utö island in Åboland involves a small group of men who ventured on the sea ice around the turn of the 19th century. One of the men spotted a large female grey seal at the small rock of Lillharu and managed to hit it across the head with his ice pick (Swe. Kölvå/Tjölva). The seal was not killed by the strike and the hunter proceeded to dispatch the trashing seal with his knife. He stood on top of the animal, trying to turn the large seal on it´s back so that he could cut the jugular vein. In the turmoil the seal managed to claw him with her paw across the leg resulting in a deep gash. The seal was eventually killed, but the wound demanded immediate treatment. There was a small fishing cabin on the island of Alu, about one kilometer from Lillharu and the company managed to drag their catch along with the wounded hunter to the cabin. Back then all hunters wore sealskin moccasins and. The thin soles of the moccasins were prone to wear out during long walks and often needed repairing. For this reason it was also customary for every hunter to carry a needle and tarred cotton thread inside lining of their hats. The wound on the leg was sewn together using the same thread. The wounded hunter was able to walk back to Utö the following day and the wound eventually healed without complication. 
20. Sealhunters from Utö island in the Åboland archipelago. Viktor Westerholm Sealhunting 1900.
The harpoon was replaced by the sealspear in the Gulf of Bothnia and the Kvarken as guns became more popular. The harpoon was in wide use in the 18th century and the historian Javob Wijkar describes the  weapon Gulf of Bothnia in the 18th century and the   

An interesting method of hunting seals refered to as "sealswimming" was documented by Åke Rålamb in 1703 in the Roslagen archipelago. In this method a hunter would be transported as close as possible to island or a rock without disturbing the resting seals. The hunter would undress and get in to the water and proceed to approach the resting seals by swimming. The hunter was equipped with a long pole, often 5 or 6 meters long, on top of which was an harpoon tip. The hunter would approach as quietly as possible and once he was close enough he would try to stab at the seal. At this point his friend on the boat would try to come and help the swimmer dispatch the wounded seal.Rålamb marvelled over the strenght and decterity of these swimmers, who often lived to a old age.

Seal as food source

21. Different parts of the seal carcass and their culinary value.
For many communities, especially in the Åboland archipelago seals were hunted mainly for their food value. Blood was also appreciated as food source and it was usual to insert a cloth or filling in to the wound of the killed seal so that blood would be retained within the animal. This method was only used if the seal was harpooned. It was believed that as the seal dies the heart will “burst”and the blood will collect in to the ribcage of the animal, from where it is collected by scooping. Blood was used mixed with rye flower as sausage stuffing or more often eaten as simple blood pudding. Seal blood was also consumed raw by the hunters if they needed to sustain themselves while on the ice. Seal blood pudding mixed with pieces of seal blubber was a common delicacy. The meat of young seals was preferred over older individuals. The meat of an old grey seal was considered almost uneatable due to it’s strong taste.

Upon the return of the seal hunting party they were happily greeted by their families and the villagers. It was custom to arrange a arrival feast called the "räsankalas". The term "räsa", which is used in certain areas of the Swedish speaking Ostrobothnia, referes to the butchering of seal, more specifically the removal of the skin and fat from the body of the seal. As the hide and fat along with the entrails was removed the body was cut in half across the middle of the animal and the remaining two halves were cut in three parts, resulting in six pieces of meat excluding the head. The catch was divided among the hunters and all were given equal share, but the boat owner received a larger portion of the catch. (Nyström 2000:134-135) 
22. A grey seal in the process of being buchered.

The head (I) could be cooked but not considered as a delicacy. The back flippers (A) were considered good as well as the front flippers (K). The back part (B) was considered excellent while the kidney section (C) was considered as good. The ribs (I) were less valued since there was little meat there. The "blue part" (E) was good and the shoulder (F) was excellent. The chest (G) was considered poor due to the small size of the piece, also the neck was not appreciated (H). (Klein 1929) 
23. Grey seals are butchered on the beach at Vehkalahti, Finland in 1899.

Seal meat was also consumed during the long hunts, steaks from adult seals were commonly eaten when provisions ran low. The meat of pups was preferred to older individuals and was often used in soups. Seal liver has a good taste and was cooked especially in Ostrobothnia and Nyland.

Sealhunting equipment is displayed in the following museums along the coastline of Finland.


The Archipelago Museum in Houtskär
Sagalund Museum in Kimito
Utö Museum
Pargas Local History Museum
Korpo Local History Museum


Hunting and Fishing Museum of Åland, Eckerö
Local History Museum of Brändö
Maritime Museum, Mariehamn


The Arctic Museum Nanoq, Jakobstad.
The Hunting and Fishing Museum of Bosund
Raahe Town Museum.
The Brage Open Air Museum in Vasa
Malax Fishing and Hunting Museum
The Museum of Tankar


The Rönnäs Archipelago Museum, Pernå


Asplund, Henrik (2000). Tid, människor och landskap - En bok om arkeologi i Pargas. Typopress AB, Åbo.

Andersson Agneta (2008). Jurmo by närmast havet.Vrakplundrarförlaget.

Klein, Ernst (1929). Skärkarlsliv i Möjatrakten. Spridda anteckningar från en undersökningsresa 1928.Fataburen, pages 124-147. Nordic Museum, Stockholm.

Klein, Ernst (1930). Vårt äldsta näringsfång. Några drag ur den svenska säljakten. Svenska kulturbilder, S. Erixon & S. Wallin. Andra bandet - Del III och IV. Pages 131-152. Skoglunds bokförlag, Stockholm.  Stockholm.

Nyström, Lars (2000). Alg, pytare och skridstång. Sälfångstens och säljaktens terminologi i finlandssvenska folkmål. Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland, Helsingfors.
Storå, Jan (2001). Grönlandssäljägare i den Åländska skärgården för 5000-3500 år sedan. Tidskriften Skärgård, Årgång 24 Nr 4 / 2001. Fortbildningscentralen vid Åbo Akademi.

Wallin, Paul & Sten, Sabine (2007). Säljakten på Gotland. Meddelanden från Föreningen Gotlands fornvänner, Gotländskt arkiv, s. 23-40. Visby.

Image credits.

1. Photo Marcus Lepola 2017.
2. Marcus Lepola.
3&4. The Archaeology Department of the University of Helsinki.
5. Usernamne Lysogeny, Wikipedia Commons.
6. National Library of Sweden.
7. KK2969:217. National Board of Antiquities, Finland.
8. Rose-Marie Back, Malax Museum Association.
9&10. Marcus Lepola 2015.
11&12 Klein 1929.
13. Marcus Lepola 2013.
14. HK19731119:5344. National Board of Antiquities in Finland.
15. Pentti Kronqvist.
16. KK2969:219, National Board of Antiquities
17. Pentti Kronqvist.
18. Pälsi Sakari, 1924. KK1932:44. National Board of Antiquities, Finland.
19. KK2953:225, National Board of Antiquities.
20. Gösta Serlachius Art Fund.
21. Ernst Klein 1929.
22. Marcus Lepola 2004.
23. KK2969:90, National Board of Antiquities.


  1. Super interesting as always Marcus! Looking forward to whatever you write about next. :D
    -Henry Hakamäki

  2. Sealhunting in island of Kihnu,Estonia. 1948. http://tv.delfi.ee/varia/ev100nadalat/vanad-videokaadrid-aastast-1948-operaator-koos-kihnu-hulgekuttidega-jahiretkel?id=76052875

  3. Marcus, in the photo number 20 are those rifle scabbards hanging over their shoulders? Any more pics or details of construction?
    Thank you.
    Denis Klemencic

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Thanks for an interesting blog. What else may I get that sort of info written in such a perfect approach? I have an undertaking that I am just now operating on, and I have been on the lookout for such info. https://archerytopic.com/best-elk-hunting-pack/


"Själen" – Seal Hunting in the Northern Baltic Sea

Foreword The following post is intended as a more academic source of information on traditional sealing in Finland and the Northern Baltic...