Greenland: In Search of the Narwhal
"Greenland’s ice sheet is melting"
Viewed from above, Greenland offers an endless vista of whiteness interrupted only by scattered ponds of azure-coloured melt water, glistening amidst the treeless Arctic tundra. Ninety percent of Greenland is covered by ice; its immense ice sheet, the largest outside Antarctica, stretches almost 1,000 miles from north to south and 600 miles from east to west. But this stark panorama of ice and snow is changing – and changing rapidly.
Greenland’s ice sheet is melting; the dazzling, photogenic display of awesome icebergs breaking off this immense island’s rapidly melting glaciers has become a major tourist attraction, yet geological evidence suggests that Greenland has already been affected by two dramatic changes in climate: the Medieval Warm Period, when warm temperatures in Northern Europe enabled Norse explorers to settle in Greenland; and the Little Ice Age that followed and apparently wiped out the settlements.
Today, climate change is affecting this pristine wilderness faster than ever, and in the past 20 years scientific evidence has proven that climate change is abrupt rather than gradual, which will be cataclysmic. The subsequent melting of Greenland’s ice shelf will cause sea levels to rise twenty four feet worldwide; London and lower Manhattan would be underwater and the east coast of England would recede to York, Nottingham and Cambridge.
Greenland is the world’s largest island and an autonomous dependent Danish territory with limited self-government and its own parliament. With a population of around 56,000, it is also the least densely populated territory in the world. About a third of the population live in Nuuk, the vibrant capital and largest city.
I recently had the good fortune to join an expedition to Greenland aboard the 26 metre, 35 ton, Icelandic-registered, two-masted schooner ‘Hildur’, a traditional wooden sailing ship, with an impeccable pedigree and open ocean cruising record to match.
This once in a lifetime journey began in Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland, where I joined my fellow passengers for the short but turbulent flight across the Greenland Sea to Constable Point in Greenland, a tiny little airfield west of Hurry Inlet in Jameson Land. This isolated peninsula is bounded to the southwest by Scoresby Sound (the world’s largest fjord), to the northwest by the majestic Stauning Alps, to the north by Scoresby Land, to the northeast by the Fleming Fjord, and to the east by Carlsberg Fjord.
Shortly after my arrival at Nerlerit Inaat Airport I was greeted by Arngrímur Arnarson, my impeccable host from North Sailing, the leading ocean adventure tour operator based in Húsavík – the whale watching capital of Iceland. Following a short tour of Hurry Inlet, Arngrímur escorted me to the vessel that would be my home for the next 7 days, where I was introduced to her rugged Captain, Heimir Harðarson, whose demeanour resembled a Viking warrior.
My cabin for the expedition was equally Nordic, and fitted out in the tradition of a big wooden boat of this beautiful schooner’s age and class, with oak, teak and pine clinker/carvel built panelling – all painstakingly restored to the highest of standards. With a passenger capacity of 50, including the crew, ‘Hildur’ was more than capable of maintaining a steady course in the most tempestuous of seas, so it was perhaps very fortunate my cabin was forward of the main saloon and galley.
Shortly after a light brunch, and with the remaining expedition members safely aboard, we were all given an introduction to the ship and a safety briefing by the crew before setting sail towards our first destination – the Inuit settlement of Ittoqqortoormiit – one of the most isolated communities in the Western Hemisphere. Frozen in for nine months of the year and sandwiched between the largest national park and longest fjord system in the world, the setting of this tiny Arctic outpost is truly stunning. To the north lies the Northeast Greenland National Park, to the south Scoresby Sound.
Ittoqqortoormiit was founded in 1925 by Ejnar Mikkelsen, the Danish polar explorer, known for his expeditions to Greenland and Franz Joseph Land, where he established the small community with some 80 Inuit settlers from Ammassalik Island in southeastern Greenland. It is the most northerly settlement on the east coast.
This ‘edge of the world’ settlement is home to just 450 hardy souls who make their living mostly by subsistence hunting of seals, muskoxen, polar bears, walrus and narwhals – the legendary tusked whale I came here to see.
The town is made up of a scattering of wooden buildings, painted in a colourful array of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens, across a coastal bluff of pink and grey gneiss (some of the planet’s oldest rock). The quaint little houses dot the rocky slopes of south Liverpool Land with magnificent views of Cape Brewster and the Volquart Boons Coast to the south.
After a comfortable night in my bunk, reading about the exploits of Ejnar Mikkelsen, we were called to a hearty breakfast in the saloon, where I had my very first tasting of ‘Muktuk’, a traditional Inuit dish made from the skin and blubber of the bowhead whale. As many of our discerning readers will know, I am a passionate conservationist and environmentalist, but it would have been an insult to my hosts if I were to decline their offering.
Just over a century ago, the legendary Antarctic explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the crew of the ‘Terra Nova’, survived for months by eating penguin meat and seal blubber, so who was I to be choosy when offered such a dish, particularly in these latitudes. When chewed raw, the blubber becomes oily, with a rather nutty taste, very similar in flavour to wild duck, or puffin, which I have eaten in Iceland.
Shortly after breakfast, the anchor was raised and we sailed west into Scoresby Sound, navigating a course between imposing cathedrals of ice that gently drift under the influence of the currents in the Arctic waters after calving from the parent glaciers originating in the distant Greenland Inland Ice – the only major remnant of the gigantic ice sheets that covered large parts of the continents and continental shelves of the Northern Hemisphere during the Ice Ages.
We anchor at Hekla Havn, where there was a small, shallow but well-sheltered bay at the southern tip of Scoresby Sound, on Danmark Island, which is the site of an old Inuit settlement and wintering camp of the first scientific expedition to Scoresby Sound over a hundred years ago. The day ended with a short evening walk exploring Hekla Havn and the surrounding area.
The following morning we sailed west through the narrow Føhnfjord with the majestic basalt mountains of Gåseland on the port side and the 2000 metre high sheer granite cliffs of Milne Land on the starboard side, (by far the largest island in the Scoresby Sound), and very popular with climbers and birdwatchers, for these towering cliffs are home to thousands of breeding seabirds, including guillemot, razorbill, kittiwake and the curious little auk.
With the weather clearly on our side, the Captain decided to drop anchor so we could embark on a zodiac tour of the spectacular iceberg graveyard at Red Island, where we carefully negotiated our way through a labyrinth of ageing icebergs towards the red sandstone cliffs. Erik, our expedition guide, manoeuvres the raft towards the cliffs for a closer look, then turned off the motor so that we could take it all in. Sizzle! Pop! Crack! The sound of melting ice punctuates the quiet.
Erik is particular about how closely he places the raft to the icebergs, explaining that one can roll without any indication. As if on cue, an iceberg in the distance lumbers onto its side. We hold on to the edge of the raft for a bouncy ride as waves of displaced water travel beneath the Zodiac.
The iceberg graveyard at Red Island was perhaps our first indication of how quickly Greenland’s massive ice sheet was melting, causing glaciers to shed large pieces of ice into the ocean. The newly formed icebergs eventually float into the fjords of Scoresby Sound where there are areas of no escape, such as the waters surrounding Red Island.
Later that afternoon after a brief stop at Rødefjord, we sail eastwards towards Øfjord, before setting our anchors at Jyttes Havn, close to the Bear Islands where we had our first encounter with a pod of narwhals. For centuries observers have been fascinated and mystified by the majestic spiral tusk grown by this small Arctic whale. Considered by many to be the ‘Unicorns of the Sea’, it is no wonder that narwhals have often been associated with magical properties. The fact that they live in the relative isolation of the remote High Arctic, and that they do not thrive well in captivity, adds to the mystery and ignorance surrounding these remarkable whales.
In the Middle Ages many Europeans believed narwhal tusks to be true unicorn horns and would pay Vikings and other northern traders many times a tusk’s weight in gold to own one. It was widely believed that a cup made from a narwhal’s tusk would destroy any poison that had been placed in it. Small wonder, in the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I paid £10,000 for a carved narwhal tusk set with jewels, which she used as a sceptre.
As explorers and naturalists began to visit the Arctic region during the age of exploration, the mystery of the narwhal began to give way to fact. So, I decided to spend the remaining days of my expedition here with the Inuit community back in Ittoqqortoormiit, to learn more about these elusive whales and the people who hunt them.
When the sea freezes over, the world of the north suddenly becomes larger. Horizons expand even as daylight contracts. Greenlanders, all 56,000 of them, live their lives facing seaward, with a vast, uninhabitable interior at their backs. No roads cross the glaciers and plunging fjords that separate the scattered coastal towns. These days planes, helicopters, fast motorboats and kayaks help connect them – but traditionally, at least in more northerly places like Ittoqqortoormiit, it was sea ice that brought an end to isolation and autumnal littletown blues. In winter, snowmobiles, dogsleds, even taxis and fuel trucks can manoeuvre across what had been open water. For as long as the Inuit have been in Greenland, winter has been the time for visits, journeys, and traditional hunting, particularly the narwhal.
Late one quiet October night in Ittoqqortoormiit, 300 miles above the Arctic Circle, the sled dogs begin to howl. No one knew for sure, but some of the villagers suspected the dogs had heard the exhalations of narwhals. The whales with the spiral unicorn tusks usually swim into Scoresby Sound this time of year as they migrate south. The next morning most of the community’s men set out in small boats to try to bag a narwhal, as the Inuit in Greenland have done for centuries – though in this area nowadays they throw harpoons from motorboats moving at 30 knots and finish off their quarry with high-powered rifles.
That afternoon, beneath a lowering grey sky, the hunters return, dragging their boats ashore. A few more of Ittoqqortoormiit’s 450 residents emerge from their brightly painted wooden houses and gather on the stony beach, eager to see what the boats might hold. Among them is Ilannguaq Egede, the 45-year-old manager of the village power plant. He came here nine years ago from the southern tip of Greenland, where sheep farmers far outnumber whalers. “I haven’t caught my first narwhal yet,” he says. “I’m waiting for this season.”
Maybe the narwhals eluded their pursuers. Or maybe they were never there and are still lingering in their summer breeding grounds up north, not yet driven south by spreading sea ice. Whatever the reason, Ittoqqortoormiit’s indefatigable hunters have returned with smaller prey: ringed seals, a dietary staple. Within minutes the animals have been skinned, the meat cut and carried away in plastic bags.
Bite-size slices of raw liver have been handed to delighted children. Aside from some bloodstained rocks and a few severed flippers, all traces of the seals have vanished.
Something else is vanishing here too: a way of life. Young people are fleeing small hunting villages like Ittoqqortoormiit. Some of the villages struggle to support themselves. And now a culture that has evolved here over many centuries, adapting to the seasonal advance and retreat of the sea ice, is facing the prospect that the ice will retreat for good. Can such a culture survive? What will be lost if it can’t?
With my expedition to Greenland coming to an end, I had mixed emotions about the plight of the Inuit people and the traditional way of life they are striving to maintain. Narwhals have, for thousands of years, been a significant staple in the subsistence economy of the Inuit in Greenland and the Inuit people of the Canadian High Arctic.
In Greenland and eastern Canada, only the Inuit are permitted to hunt them and limits are placed on the number of narwhals any one community can harvest. They are hunted by the Inuit for their ‘Muktuk’ (blubber), meat, skin, and their tusks, the majority of which are often sold internationally, due to their great value as a natural curiosity on the international market.
Shortly before my departure from Ittoqqortoormiit, I was invited to the home of Ilannguaq Egede where I was treated to a traditional Inuit meal with his family. Noting my interest in their traditions, climate change, and the plight of the narwhal, they presented me with a gift that I shall cherish for many years to come, a narwhal tusk, that I was informed was hunted in these hostile Arctic waters by his late father, some 50 years ago.
The lessons of abrupt climate change in Greenland and elsewhere are clear and obvious. Ignoring our environmental impact will not make it go away, but considering our place on the planet with intelligence and vigour will greatly improve our prospects for the future. It is in all our interests to pay attention to Greenland.
Related Articles: Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice