'It's so important that we feel small trying to encompass it.'
Music festival marks revival of bowhead hunt
KANGIQSUJUAQ – The bowhead whale surfaced, but Mani Kutaak, harpoon in hand, froze with fear. The whale was gigantic, but his brother killed it.
Elders say this was the last bowhead whale hunted on Nunavik's Hudson Strait coast, more than 100 years ago.
Hunters in Kangiqsujuaq now have another shot at a bowhead whale.
Since Aug. 1, more than 50 hunters have been out looking for bowhead whales from freighter canoes and speedboats, armed with .375 Winchesters and a special harpoon that plunges a grenade filled with water and gas deep inside the whale.
It is Nunavik's first official bowhead hunt. Nunavut has hunted bowhead whales since 1996, but Nunavik has never held one before now.
"We are revitalizing this once almighty hunt from before the days of trucks or light bulbs or gun powder," said Jimmy Johannes of Nunavik's Anguvigak hunters and trappers association. "It's so important that we feel small trying to encompass it."
The bowhead whale hunt began with a prayer on the beach.
Aqujaq Qisiiq, the whaling captain, and Vincent Cormier, from the federal department of fisheries and oceans, signed a licence authorizing the take of one bowhead before a cheering crowd.
Within hours the first hunters were off. Fog hugged the hilltops around Kangiqsujuaq and the bay was calm, although the waters in the Hudson Strait were rough. Hunters spotted a minke whale and a bowhead, but with night falling, they decided not to pursue the whale.
The next day, Sunday, the hunters sighted another bowhead.
"The whale was huge," said a young hunter. "When it blows you can see it from miles away."
But no one hunts on Sundays, so this whale also went free.
Instead, hunters came ashore for a music festival – called the Bowhead Whale Music Festival – in honour of the hunt.
"We were hoping to have a whale by the festival," said Mary Pilurtuut, the mayor of Kangiqsujuaq.
Among those watching the performances, which included a bevy of local drummers and a family band from Nunavut, was Naalak Nappaaluk, who turned 80 last month.
More than 20 years ago, Nappaaluk helped begin the push for the bowhead hunt, common during his youth.
Back then, winters were colder and families still lived in snow houses, so bowhead whales were desired for the tremendous amount of heating oil they provided. Hunters went after the bowhead whales with harpoons and walrus tusks from sealskin kayaks.
Nappaaluk still remembers the bowhead whale that eluded him as a teenager. It was spring and ice caked the bay. He stood poised at the edge of a flow with a harpoon attached to a rope of dried sealskin, but the whale found a lead and escaped.
As of Nunatsiaq News press time, hunters in Kangiqsujuaq had yet to catch their whale.
But Nappaaluk was confident they would get it ‘though, remembering what elders once told him.
"If a bowhead doesn't want to be hunted the skin will tense up and it's impossible to hunt him. When he doesn't mind being hunted you can go at him and cut him up easily. That's how they are," he said.
Hunters in Nunavik have wanted a bowhead hunt since the mid-1980s, but the bowhead whale was designated as "endangered' by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and bowhead hunting was prohibited, except in Nunavut, where the Nunavut land claims agreement guaranteed a bowhead whale hunt.
Numbers for the eastern Arctic population of bowhead whales were once thought to be less than 1,000, but in 2005, based on new population studies, the COSEWIC status was lowered to "threatened."
Current DFO estimates put the eastern Arctic bowhead population at least 14,000 – an increase that came as no surprise to Inuit hunters who always said bowhead whale populations are healthier than scientists believed.
Nunavut hunters will conduct bowhead whale hunts in Kugaaruk and Hall Beach later this month.
Nunavik's hunt is expected to continue until Aug. 15, although the DFO license for the hunt is valid until Sept. 30.