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Thursday, 10 May, 2001, 18:25 GMT 19:25 UK
Russian ship to rescue baby seals
Baby seal BBS
The seals swim south to the White Sea to breed
The Russian authorities are sending a ship to try to rescue some of the hundreds of thousands of baby seals starving to death in the country's remote White Sea.

The journey from Murmansk takes about a day and straight after arrival the rescue operation will begin

Spokesman for the rescue operation
A spokesman for the crew said the vessel, weighing 20,000 tonnes, would transfer the pups to the neighbouring Barents Sea, where they would have more food.

The seals are trapped on ice floes in the White Sea, after unusually strong winds stopped them drifting to their normal feeding grounds in the Barents Sea.

A Russian scientist warned on Tuesday that almost 200,000 baby seals were doomed because of freak weather.

Only the adult seals can get themselves out on their own

Russian emergency minister
It is not clear how many seals the ship can carry, or how many trips it will make. The Russian emergency ministry said it would definitely become involved in the rescue operation.

"Only the adult seals can get themselves out on their own. The pups, and there are approximately 200,000 of them, need help," the Russian Emergency Minister, Sergey Shoygu, said.

Strong winds

The seals, which swim south to the White Sea to breed, normally drift back north on ice floes to the richer feeding grounds of the Barents Sea.

Map showing Barents Sea and White Sea BBC
But this year, the area has been hit by strong north-easterly winds, halting the normal drift patterns.

Vladimir Potelov, of the Polar Institute of Fish and Oceanography, said it would be impossible to evacuate or feed all the cubs, but it might be possible to save some.

"It is possible to catch those which are searching for food on the shore, transport them to inland waterways and then let them out into the southern part of the Barents Sea," he said.

A similar disaster occurred in 1966, when up to 300,000 baby seals died - around 60% of the total number born that year.

An unusually harsh winter in Russia has already caused problems for other wildlife.

Endangered Siberian tigers in Russia's far east have been struggling to survive after plummeting temperatures wiped out large numbers of their usual prey, which include reindeer and wild boar.

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See also:

08 May 01 | Europe
Stranded seals face slow death
18 Apr 01 | Media reports
Russian 'ice expedition' to save seals
04 Nov 00 | Media reports
Loggers wreak havoc in Siberia
02 Sep 99 | Sci/Tech
Marine diseases set to increase
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