The 1914 Sealing Disasters
The Newfoundland and Labrador spring sealing fishery was far more hazardous than any other local fishery at the turn of the 20th century. Sealing ships would steam or sail into the dangerous ice floes off Newfoundland and Labrador’s coast where large masses of ice and sudden blizzards could cause ships to become stranded and damaged. Sealers might spend up to 12 hours walking on ice fields. When foul weather struck, their only option was to attempt to return to their distant ships guided only by the sound of a whistle.
On March 30th, 1914, 166 men left the SS Newfoundland and headed towards the SS Stephano seven miles away. A group of 34 men chose to turn back as the weather worsened while the remaining men pressed on. They had been instructed to harvest 1, 500 seals before returning to the SS Newfoundland and felt obliged to do so. The SS Stephano would eventually leave the men nine miles out in a rising storm. For the next two days they were lost in a vicious blizzard due to the captain of each ship assuming the men had found refuge on the other. In that time, 78 men were lost, many disappearing into the frigid waters.
In that same storm, another sealing vessel- the SS Southern Cross- sank while returning from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In total, 251 brave sealers perished trying tirelessly to provide for their families and communities. This was a tremendous loss for a country of only 250, 000.
Change for the better – Finding light in the dark
It is a sad truth that tragedy is often a catalyst for positive change. A host of legislative changes were enacted as a result of the 1914 disasters to improve working conditions for sealers. In the end, these regulations dramatically improved the safety of the seal fishery and the lives of marine workers in general.