The Bowhead whale is one of the largest living things on the planet and can live up to 200 years. We saw about 40 from the Lyubov Orlova as we made our way through Cumberland Sound, the vast bay that pierces the eastern side of Baffin Island. They travel singly or in small groups to feed in the summer time before migrating to warmer waters in the winter.
Based on our sightings, we made a rough estimate that there could be up a couple hundred of Bowheads in the sound. But it is impossible to tell. What we do know is that there were once many more. For nearly a hundred years – from the early 19th Century to the 1920s – European whalers exploited the stocks of whales in Cumberland Sound. During this period, more than 18,000 whales where killed. This slaughter was replicated in other parts of the Arctic and the Bowhead was driven to the brink of extinction. Hunting was banned for decades and only resumed in a limited and controlled way following the settlement of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. This agreement gives Inuit the right to take one Bowhead a year and is not a threat to the population.
Kekerten Island lies near the mouth of Kingnait Fjord and was traditionally used by the Inuit for whaling. It was also the base from which European whalers operated and today is a historic park. It is also a haunted place with bones and rusted metal cauldrons scattered on the shore. Huge iron spikes still protrude from the flat granite shoreline where whales were hauled onto shore and rendered into oil, their baleen extracted for use in the kinds of household goods for which we now use plastic. Outlines of vanished buildings are scattered and a boardwalk leads visitors down to the shore where a massive Bowhead skull sits bleaching in the sun.
In the hills are the graves of whalers and Inuit, adults and infants. The dead were placed in barrels with a few personal items and the makeshift coffin was wedged into the grey, craggy hillside. There they sit today, disintigrating slowly in the dry arctic climate. It is an eerie place and on this quiet, windless day one could feel the presence of the generations that lived and died chasing the riches that came from whale carcasses.
I climbed the slope to where Erik sat with his rifle, keeping a watch for polar bears. With 90 or so people on shore, we always have spotters and gun carriers who leave the ship first and scout both a good landing place for the zodiacs and climb the hills to make sure there are no bears around. Or if there are, they are far enough away to be of no concern.
Collecting Erik, his rifle and two other companions we walked further up the hill to where ancient beaches testify to continuing isostatic rebound -- the slow but steady rising of the land that began when the last Ice Age ended. The weight of a kilometre of ice pressed the earth down and it continues to rise in many places in the Arctic. In this location, you can clearly see the terraced lines of beaches that were once washed by the tide that now rises and falls 50 metres below. Amidst the black lichen covered rocks was a firepit and a ring of stones that once held down a skin tent. Both were easy to spot because the rocks had been disturbed. But how old they might be, that was another question. The site was logical. It afforded a view of the cove below, so obviously hunters had used it. But when? It was clearly a long time ago. There was no sign of any activity, no debris, no charred bones in the firepit. Its age was impossible to tell with any accuracy.
We stood on this spot in silence. There was no wind. No birds. No voices from below carried this far. We had to come this far north, to this place that still echoed with the voices of labouring men long gone, to hear the Arctic silence.
See today's Student on Ice expedition video here:
Credit: Studetns on Ice