Ilimanaq and the Humpback Whales

While in Denmark people hunt for trophies, in Greenland they hunt for food and because it is such an integrated part of their culture to live off the wildlife.

Not long before we arrived to Ilulissat one of the massive ice bergs blocking the entrance to the Ice Fjord and the Jakobshavn Glacier had come loose from its position leaving an opening for tonnes and tonnes of ice to pass from the Ice Fjord and into Disko Bay before another massive ice berg would block the entrance again.

The Ice Fjord

Jakobshavn Glacier, or Sermeq Kujalleq as it is called in Greenlandic, is one of the most productive glaciers in the world. It moves around 25 meters a day sending 20 billion tonnes of ice into the Ice Fjord each year, which is 70 to 86 million tonnes a day. In other measurements, it is 35 km3 each year. It is 680 meters high and 7.5 kilometres wide. It opens up and deposits its ice in the Ice Fjord just south of Ilulissat.

The Ice Fjord runs 40 kilometres West from the ice sheet to Disko Bay transporting the massive amounts of ice. But since the water at the entrance to the fjord are shallower than further in many of the large ice bergs, which can reach a kilometre in height get stuck in the 300 meter deep entrance over the summer and sometimes for years. Here they block the fjord until they are broken into pieces are pressured out from the forces of continuous ice from the glacier.

Scientists are certain that it was an ice berg from this glacier which caused the 1912 sinking of Titanic. Later data has shown that some of the largest ice bergs can reach as far down as 40-45 degrees north, which is level with New York.

Day trip to Ilimanaq

Because one of the ice bergs had wrestled free from the the shallow waters, Disko Bay was full of ice around the entrance to the Ice Fjord. Some said they had never seen so much ice in the bay before.

This however also had the effect that any trips to Ilimanaq were cancelled since it was impossible for many to sail through the ice. Ilulissat lies to the north of the fjord, while Ilimanaq lies to the south, why one has to sail past the fjord entrance into Disko Bay.

I had been slightly nervous that our trip to Ilimanaq would also be cancelled, but after a week the ice was slowly spreading out allowing for boats to sail to Ilimanaq without having to make a large detour around the ice.

We had seen Qeqertarsuaq and Oqaatsut, and I was looking forward to comparing them to Ilimanaq.

Ilimanaq is slightly bigger than Oqaatsut, and is in Danish known as Claushavn. It lies 15 kilometres south of Ilulissat, but where the people of Oqaatsut can travel by land, the Ice Fjord makes it impossible to get from Ilimanaq to Ilulissat unless by boat. Winters here are therefore very isolated and the transport of goods to the settlement happens by boat in the summer months. During the winter, it is not possible to reach the settlement or with helicopter operated by government contract by Air Greenland.

As with Oqaatsut, the settlement originates from Dutch whalers who were active in the region from 1719 to 1732. The settlement itself is from 1741 and founded by Danes though named after the Dutch whaler Klacs Pieterz Torp.

What makes Ilimanaq interesting in Danish eyes is the missionary work of Poul Egede, one of the first Europeans to grow up in Greenland. Though born in Norway, he moved with his family to Greenland at the age of two, and therefore spoke Greenlandic from childhood. His mission as a Lutheran missionary in Greenland was to find and convert the lost colony of Norsemen. Greenland had been settled by Vikings at the turn of the first millennium, and at a time when Scandinavia was slowly converting to Christianity. Christianity had also reached the Norse settlers in Greenland, but this had been long before the Danish Reformation and break with the Catholic Church. It was therefore paramount to find the colony which it was believed still existed in Greenland and convert them to Lutheran Protestantism.

The colony had long since perished, but while searching for it, Poul Egede and others sent by the Danish king spent their time converting the Inuit population. And for Poul Egede it was a success as he had the advantage of speaking the language and knowing the culture.

In 2014, Realdania beautifully renovated two old colonial houses in Ilimanaq – the old shop and Poul Egedes house.

Lunch in the school teacher’s home

Ilimanaq sees a great many tourists in comparison to other settlements due to its close proximity to Ilulissat as well as its colonial history. Unlike in Oqaatsut, we were far from alone on our visit. But the group we were with was small, and our guide – the owner of Arctic Friend, was well acquainted with the locals of Ilimanaq. Thus, he had arranged for us a local lunch.

There are eight students in the school in Ilimanaq, all of them different ages and all of them requiring to be taught in at different levels within a wide spectre of topics. One school teacher provides the primary education for the children in these first years before they are sent off to the larger cities to continue their secondary high school years.

14 % of Greenlandic children leave their home at around 14 years old, because the settlements where they grew up are not big enough to support more than 7 years of education. Not only that, but these children who have grown up in a settlement of maybe around 50 people, suddenly have to become accustomed to being one amongst 1500 or so school children in a large city such as Nuuk, Sisimiut or Aassiaat.

We got the chance to visit the local school teacher in Ilimanaq, and hear about the life and school in the settlement. She treated us to a local curry fish soup and a Danish layer cake.

We were not the first visitors she and her husband invited into their home. There were a thank you note hanging on the wall from the Danish Prime Minister, thanking the family for inviting him and the EU President Donald Tusk to their home.

Moreover, our guide seemed to be intimately acquainted with the family and could tell us that the husband had received the price for catching most halibut in Greenland during the summer 2016. Outside the house were a pile of what others would consider hunting trophies, but what is merely everyday in Ilimanaq. Whale bards, musk oxen horns, reindeer antlers and much more from the husband’s hunting.

While in Denmark people hunt for trophies, in Greenland they hunt for food and because it is such an integrated part of their culture to live off the wildlife.

The visit gave this day an added feeling of being not merely a tourist, but a guest in this beautiful country and welcomed in the midst of the locals.

The journey of the humpback whales

But we had not merely come to see Ilimanaq. The boat trip south was also shadowing as a whale safari. We had already seen whales up close on our first day, but since then our luck had not been great. Therefore, it was quite surprising how many humpback whales we saw swimming north past Ilimanaq. Small families of whales were slowly making their way up the coast.

We were fortunate to have the company of a Spanish guy, who was an enthusiastic drone pilot.

While I am not very keen on the idea of drones due to their noise and the spying factor, I must admit that it was pretty cool to have the drone spy on the whales. While we only saw a fin or a tail fin, the drone caught the whales playing and feeding.

The below video was made by Joaquin Romera, who was so kind to let me post it here.

Ilimanaq was definitely worth a visit, and the fact that we came with a small and well integrated tour agency with close contacts in the area made the day even more special.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.