Coral Harbour hunters land early summer bowhead whale
"It was kind of dangerous that whole time"
From the moment the first harpoon went into the bowhead whale until the time hunters hauled the animal to the floe edge, only about 30 minutes had passed.
But it felt much longer, as the 75-tonne whale writhed on the harpoon line and, at one point, charged a crew member’s boat.
“We just really wanted to kill it,” recalls Aaron Emiktowt, the captain of Coral Harbour’s bowhead hunt crew, which caught Nunavut’s first whale of the season on June 28.
Hunters in Coral Harbour had their sights on a bowhead since early May, when they first spotted four or five of the whales swimming in open water at Ruin Point, about 50 kilometres southwest of the Kivalliq community.
“Every time we went down [to the floe edge], we were just learning how to hunt it,” Emiktowt said. “We were getting frustrated.”
Once the ice broke up enough along the coast of Southampton Island and gave way to shallow open water, the crew decided to pursue a bowhead again last week.
Once hunters spotted the small, female whale in the water on June 28, crew member Gregory Ningeocheak threw his harpoon into the animal.
It didn’t take long to secure her, but Emiktowt said it was a high-risk operation.
Once the harpoon was embedded in the whale, crew members hauled her around by boat to try and tire the animal out.
When a hunter tried to harpoon the whale a second time, the whale turned sharply towards the group and began to charge their boat. The driver was able to accelerate in time to get away.
“So I suggested to everyone that we started shooting with high-calibre rifles,” Emiktowt said, which appeared to knock the whale out.
Emikowt then speared the bowhead through the heart, ending its struggle.
“I freaked out,” he said. “It was kind of dangerous that whole time. We were all nervous.”
The crew pulled the whale to the floe edge, cut its tail and flippers before radioing other community members to come and help.
Roughly five hours later, crews had hauled the eight-metre-long (27-foot-long) whale onto the shore and butchered the animal, distributing muktuk among community members.
“It was a lot of fun,” Emiktowt said of his first experience as a bowhead hunt captain. “I found it really challenging; it’s a really good learning experience.”
“I had a great-grandfather who hunted [bowhead] by qajaq, just with a spear,” he said. “I was always fascinated by how he was able to do that.”
While hunters today typically use harpoons, they also have access to motorized boats, rifles and an explosive grenade to help quickly kill the animal, if needed.
“It was an awesome experience, something I’ve never done before,” said Ningeocheak, the first harpooner. “Keeping [this] tradition alive in this modern day is an honour and a privilege.”
Since 2015, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ annual bowhead quota for Nunavut has been set at five whales: two allotted to the Kivalliq region, two to the Qikiqtaaluk and one for Kitikmeot.
The Kivalliq Wildlife Board has already approved the bowhead hunt plan for Naujaat, where a crew plans to hunt its bowhead in August or early September.
Baffin’s two allotted bowhead hunts will take place in Pond Inlet and Iqaluit this year, though neither community has submitted a hunt plan to their regional wildlife board, DFO said in a July 5 email.
A Kitikmeot community has yet to be selected to harvest that region’s bowhead this year.