Nunavut hunters, harvesters rejoice over bowhead whale catch
“This was a very good, successful second hunt. It means a lot to people here in Iqaluit”
Mealia Sheutiapik was visiting Iqaluit’s Elders’ Qammaq on Tuesday afternoon when she heard the news that hunters from the Nunavut community had successfully captured a bowhead whale.
The catch marks the first bowhead harvested in Iqaluit in seven years and only the second one in around a century.
It’s no wonder, then, that one elder at the Qammaq started singing to hunters over a CB radio, in a chant of “Olé, Olé, Olé.” The crew quickly joined the chorus, until everyone was cheering back through the radio to the elders on land.
Sheutiapik, who took part in the butchering of the bowhead whale the following day, plans to bring the whale skin delicacy known as maqtaq back to Ottawa where she lives, to share with her Inuit community there.
The woman was visiting Iqaluit to see family and go clam digging—but being around for a bowhead harvest was even better.
“It’s the best experience in life,” she said.
A community-wide hunt
The whale, which was caught in the middle of Frobisher Bay in the early afternoon on Aug. 14, was hauled into Koojesse Inlet that evening.
The small island where the whale is being harvested this week is known in Inuktut as Ukalirtulirk and is about a 10-minute boat ride from the city.
There are five bowhead tags given out in Nunavut each year by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Another bowhead was hunted earlier this summer in Coral Harbour.
To run the hunt, Iqaluit’s Amaruq Hunters and Trappers Association put together a committee, which raised about $30,000 to cover costs, said the association’s chairperson, Pitseolak Alainga.
Alainga was one of the captains in the 2011 hunt.
“This was a very good, successful second hunt … It means a lot to people here in Iqaluit,” he said. “For these young men here, it’s their first time, they’re very grateful to be in a hunt like this.”
The whale was roughly 35 feet long—shorter by ten feet than the last bowhead. The marine mammals, which can live as long as 200 years, sometimes grow up to 65 feet in length.
This whale will easily feed hundreds of people.
First kill, big catch
With food insecurity in the community being what it is, harpooner Koovian Flanagan said she was proud to be a part of the hunt team, along with her sister.
“I’ve never hunted a ptarmigan, a rabbit, a seal, or a caribou. This is my first kill. I had to start big,” she said, laughing.
On Wednesday morning Flanagan had turned from harpooner to volunteer coordinator, when, along with hunt elder Jeetaloo Kakee, she was giving enthusiastic orders to the three dozen or so volunteers who came out to help haul in and cut up the catch.
The hunters left Iqaluit on Monday, and camped overnight at a place called Avartarvik.
At around 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a spotter saw a whale, and the 15 or so hunters began filing into boats. With them was elder Inookie Adamie, who is in his 90s and is the father of hunt captain Naulaq Inookie.
More than one whale was spotted. When they caught up to one in the early afternoon it took about four hours to catch and kill the whale.
“The whale was so mad he lifted four of five vessels out of the water,” Flanagan said.
The beast was harpooned five times. Each harpoon line bore a bright coloured buoy on the end so hunters could keep track of the whale as it struggled.
When the animal died, a few brave hunters walked on the floating giant.
“They said it was like walking on Jell-O,” Flanagan said.
Hunters then cut off one fin, so it would be easier to pull the bowhead back to shore. That fin measured about seven feet long.
Everyone got home safe, mostly
Before leaving the whale to float at the shore overnight, the animal’s abdomen was split open.
“The guts had to be cut open because you don’t want it to bloat up, or rot the meat,” hunt co-captain Josephee Nooshoota said. He took part in the butchering of the 2011 bowhead.
“It was intense. We had a couple people that went in the water, but they’re OK,” Nooshoota said. One hunter fell into the water after being slapped by the tail of the bowhead.
“I’m really proud, really happy,” he said.
The man was sweating from the exertion of carving pink and black maqtaq slabs from the tough-skinned whale. “It’s a lot of work. A lot of blubber,” he said.
One generation learns
At 15, Simata Buscemi was one of the youngest hunters. He was set up as a harpooner in his boat of three crewmembers who are all still high school students.
“It kept going underwater,” he said of the whale. “I couldn’t throw the harpoon right away otherwise the water would stop the momentum of the harpoon.”
Buscemi learned that if he threw the heavy harpoon over his shoulder, he wouldn’t be hit in the side by the attached balloon as it flew by.
“We got close enough where it started to lift the back of our boat. We couldn’t move forward because our motor was out,” he said, adding that after that scare the young hunters handed their harpoon duties off to another boat.
Many of the Iqaluit hunters were in their twenties and thirties.
“There are a lot of skillful young men. That’s the thing that stuck out the most,” said hunter Franco Buscemi, who worked as shooter in the hunt. “These guys will be able to lead hunts in the future now. And build back our capacity.”
When he shot the grenade into the whale, Buscemi said he felt a small vibration all around as an explosion went off inside the animal.
Respect for a valuable animal
Inuit groups like Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. are studying hunt tools and techniques to see what are the most efficient ways to quickly kill these whales, which are now rarely harvested.
That’s why pathologist and wildlife veterinarian Pierre-Yves Daoust was on shore to collect samples from the bowhead. These blubber and muscle samples can be studied to see how the whale died, what its diet and health were at death, and gather other data for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
“It’s a very precious animal. That’s why we have to try to take as much information out of it as we can,” he said.
No tests were needed before people could eat the raw whale, which boaters were flocking to from across the bay to get a first taste. And right now, many Iqaluit residents are sure to be feasting on and filling their freezers with the fresh whale bounty.