Gjoa Haven whalers seek bowhead in Gulf of Boothia

Crew travel by boat to Taloyoak and portage to hunting site


This map shows the location of the Gulf of Boothia. (FILE IMAGE)

This map shows the location of the Gulf of Boothia. (FILE IMAGE)

Whalers in Gjoa Haven, Nunavut’s third and final community permitted to hunt a bowhead whale this year, finally set sail on their whaling expedition Sept. 9, after a series of delays.

The bowhead hunt is the community’s first in recent memory. In fact, no members of the whaling crew have ever hunted such an animal.

“We’re all hunters, but none of us have ever been on a bowhead hunt,” said James Qitsualik, chairman of the Gjoa Haven Hunters and Trappers organization and captain of the whaling party.

“We’re all new to this.”

In preparation, the whaling party took advice from experienced bowhead whalers in other communities of the Kivalliq region that have performed such hunts, including Kugaaruk, Rankin Inlet, and Taloyoak.

“We’ve heard a lot from other communities on how to hunt and butcher [bowheads],” he said. “We’ve been studying the anatomy of the whale too.”

Twelve other communities of Nunavut have had bowhead hunts since 1996, when Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board first agreed to allow a limited hunt of the animal in the Nunavut Settlement Area. Since 2009, no more than three bowhead hunts per year are permitted in Nunavut – one to a given community in each region of the territory.

The communities of Pangnirtung and Repulse Bay caught this year’s two other bowheads in August.

Gjoa Haven hunters originally planned to do their hunt in mid-August, Qitsualik said, but a visit from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who came to see the Canadian Rangers in the community, wiped out those plans.

“That’s when they got all the Rangers and we had trouble finding boats and hunters. So we had delay after delay,” he said. The captain originally assigned to the hunt backed out for the Rangers’ work, and a second captain resigned before Qitsualik took the post.

Meanwhile, the whaling party changed their choice of hunting location. Ice and wind conditions in James Ross Strait ruled out their first choice, 289 kilometres of Gjoa Haven. The hunters’ second choice — to hunt for a whale in the Gulf of Boothia — is now underway.

Although the second choice is closer, little more than 160 km away, the whaling party has to portage boats and equipment over a narrow section of Boothia Peninsula, just east of the community of Taloyoak, to get to the site.

“The people of Taloyoak kept encouraging us to come here and they’re willing to help. That’s why we just said OK, let’s go,” Qitsualik said from the community on Sept. 11, where the party was planning the next stage of their journey after having spent the night.

Qitsualik and his crew of 15 expect to find many whales on other side of the portage at Lord Mayor Bay, he said, which faces the Gulf of Boothia.

“There’s a lot of whales on the other side, and there’s not many on this side,” Qitsualik said. Arctic waters between Gjoa Haven and Taloyoak “can be hazardous,” he said.

“We feel we’ll be safer here and we can get more help while we’re here also.”

Qitsualik and his whaling party are taking advice from the captain of last year’s bowhead whale hunt in Taloyoak along the way, he said. Taloyoak whale-hunters caught their bowhead last year with captain Abel Aqqaq.

The party has a lot of heavy lifting to do on the portage. Four hunting boats will hit the waters of the Gulf of Boothia some time after Sept. 11, said Qitsualik, transported by ATV-towed trailers.

Once the whalers set up camp and set out into the water, they will search for a “small” bowhead, he said, 30 to 40 feet (nine to 12 metres) long.

“We don’t want a huge bowhead. The bigger they are, they’re stiffer and tougher, and not as tender and tasty,” Qitsualik said, ideally a “32-footer.”

“Our goal is to get a young one, as long as it’s not a calf or its mother.”

The whaling party hopes to meet their goal quickly, as temperatures drop and shallow waters begin to freeze. Qitsualik expects his group will also come across polar bears, which adds some urgency.

“We want a quick kill and we want to butcher it [the bowhead] as fast as possible, because the polar bears are going to come around,” he said. “The sooner we get it done, the better.”

If all goes well, Qitsualik expects the whale to be caught and butchered some time between Sept. 16 and Sept. 21, he said.

Once done, the whaling party’s priority will be “getting the maktaaq on this side of the ocean [Taloyoak and James Ross Strait], and bringing it to the community,” he said. “That’s the hardest part — and hauling our gear from one side of the ocean to the next.”

The whaling party planned to set up camp at Lord Mayor Bay in the Gulf of Boothia by Sept. 12, and hunt for their bowhead in those waters.

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