Inuit hunters in Iqaluit, capital city of Nunavut Territory in Canada’s eastern Arctic, have killed their first bowhead whale in recent memory, less than 12 hours after embarking on their whaling expedition.
More than 20 hunters set out in teams Monday morning on Frobisher Bay for the bowhead hunt, after they had signed a federal fisheries licence on Friday to harvest one of the massive marine mammals.
Glenn Williams, a wildlife policy advisor with Inuit land-claim organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., said the bowhead was spotted Monday evening from a hill near the hunters’ camp, located an hour’s boat ride away from Iqaluit.
Within a couple of hours, the 14-metre whale was located and killed using harpoons. It was then brought back to the camp, where hunters are butchering the animal into meat and muktaaq, which consists of whale skin and blubber.
“They didn’t have to move the animal too far from where they took it, to the place where the captain selected … to beach the whale, and it was beached on high tide last night around 9 o’clock,” Williams told CBC News Tuesday morning from the camp.
“They worked on it through the night, through the low tide. The tide’s coming back up now and they’ll probably finish the job today, of flensing the animal out.”
Williams said the hunters will likely be heading back to Iqaluit within the next couple of days.
Word of the successful hunt spread quickly that evening, not only on the streets of Iqaluit, but also on social media websites like Twitter and Facebook.
The news even reached a community feast that was held Monday evening for Gov. Gen. David Johnston, who had landed in Iqaluit earlier in the day to start his first official tour of Nunavut.
Traditional Inuit hunting
“It’s good, it’s always good to keep, like, traditional hunting going,” Iqaluit resident Matthew Amarualik told CBC News on Tuesday evening.
Whaling has long been a tradition in Inuit culture, which emphasizes the ability to live off the land.
The meat and muktaaq from one bowhead whale can feed hundreds of people not just in the community, but in nearby communities as well.
But it has been more than 100 years since Inuit in Nunavut’s capital city have harvested a bowhead whale, since the species had been off-limits to hunting for decades.
As a result, many modern Inuit in Nunavut have not had a chance to go after the large whales.
As bowhead numbers started to rebound in the mid-1990s, hunters have been slowly getting their chance. Today, a licence is needed to harvest bowhead whales.
According to recent estimates, there could be more than 14,000 bowheads in the waters off Nunavut.
“It’s part of my culture that I’ve read about and seen in books,” said Gou Arnaquq. “It’s exciting that the hunters, the local hunters, have got one.”
Iqaluit and two Nunavut hamlets, Kugaaruk and Coral Harbour, were chosen to embark on community bowhead hunts this year.
Getting the opportunity to hunt a bowhead does not provide a guarantee that a bowhead will be caught, despite the months of planning that goes into such expeditions.
But the hunters in Iqaluit believed they had a good chance of success, since bowheads had been spotted in the area in recent days.
A community feast is being planned once the bowhead is brought back to Iqaluit. Some of the meat and muktaaq will also be sent to other communities.
Arnaquq, whose cousins and friends are taking part in the hunt, said people are looking forward to feasting on some fresh bowhead whale.
“I think the whole town is going to be really excited, and most of the town will be there,” he said.