Nunatsiaq News
TAISSUMANI: Around the Arctic October 04, 2013 - 11:03 am

Taissumani, Oct. 4

The Calanus

The Calanus, mouldering and forgotten, still sits on the Iqaluit beach. (FILE PHOTO)
The Calanus, mouldering and forgotten, still sits on the Iqaluit beach. (FILE PHOTO)

A piece of Arctic history lies deteriorating on the beach in Iqaluit. I’m referring to the ship, the Calanus, a boat with an illustrious history.

In 1947 the Fisheries Research Board of Canada began to conduct summer research in Ungava Bay, a program with a laudable goal. It wanted to “discover any marine resources in the Eastern Arctic which could serve to raise the standard of living of the natives…” Research showed that a sturdier ship was needed than the one used that year. And so the Calanus was commissioned.

The wheels of government turn slowly today, with Arctic initiatives – like research stations and icebreakers – announced, with multi-year timetables for their building.

Not so with the Calanus. The ship was “designed, drawn and built” between January and August of 1948. (Why can’t our government do that today?) The vessel was constructed by the Industrial Shipping Company of Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia.

The ship is a ketch, 49 and a half feet long, 15 feet at her widest and she draws 6 and a half feet of water. Her ribs were fashioned of white oak, her planking of yellow birch below the water line and oak above. The decks were made of white pine, with the gunwale and wheelhouse made of oak. The engine was a 77 horsepower diesel.

The designers of the ship were constrained by the knowledge that the ship would need to sail in shallow waters near shore, and would have to be hauled onto a beach for most winters. So she was built somewhat smaller than she might have been.

Still, the hardy vessel was able to carry trawling gear and plankton nets. Below decks were cramped laboratory space and accommodation for the small crew.

The name of the ship was appropriate. Calanus is a small copepod crustacean that is found in large numbers in polar and sub-polar seas, and is an important food source for many species of fish.

In 1953, the little ship proved the worthiness of its carefully-considered design when it was caught in the middle of an ice field in Hudson Strait. As told by E. H. Grainger, writing in “Arctic” some years later, “It was dark, the ice floes swirled and ground together, and open water was nowhere to be seen. Some hours after the vessel was caught… an immense floe with a high overhang struck; it pressed against the port quarter, hooked itself over the gunwale, and forced the boat downward. At the same time, another floe moved against the starboard bow near the water line and lifted that side of the vessel. As the starboard bow rose and the Calanus heeled farther and farther to port, there appeared to be no way to prevent her loss.

“But just at that moment a patch of open water appeared directly astern. Reverse power slipped the vessel back off the starboard ice and out from under the port ice to the open water, where she again floated and regained her stability. She traversed the rest of the ice field by daylight the next morning.”

During its working life the sturdy vessel worked as far north as Igloolik and as far south as James Bay. At Igloolik in 1955, instead of being hauled out for its first of two winters there, it was instead frozen in to a sheltered bay, from which it emerged unscathed the following summer.

In 1965, after a refit in Montreal, the Calanus was sailed to Iqaluit (then called Frobisher Bay) where she remained for the rest of her active life. But in the 1970s government funding became harder to find, and the vessel sat unused for long periods.

In the 1980s the municipality of Iqaluit purchased the ship, but subsequently sold her to a private citizen. She is presently owned, but not used, by an outfitter. She has not been used since 1979, and sits on the beach, vandalized and weathered.

Grainger concluded his description of the ship with the observations that “the present condition of this important little vessel reveals a sad and unworthy conclusion to a unique career of three decades,” and “Little time remains to take action if we are to prevent the irretrievable loss of this historic ship.”

Grainger wrote those words in 1995. Eighteen more years have passed, and still the Calanus sits neglected on the beach.

Norway, a country that pays more than lip service to its Arctic history, is salvaging the Maud in Cambridge Bay, a ship that is underwater and in far worse condition that the Calanus. The Maud is seen as being an important part of Norway’s sea-faring heritage.

Canada claims to cherish its northern history, too, but does so with empty rhetoric and little action. It’s too bad that the Calanus isn’t Norwegian.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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