Students on Ice Arctic Expedition 2013
Uummannaq Fjord slices into the western coast of Greenland. On the morning we entered it was clear and calm. The sun, which does not set here at this time of year, had circled around behind the steep granite walls of the fjord and now bathed their flanks in its golden light.
Suddenly, the surface is broken a spout of water. Then another. And another. Five spouts in rapid succession reveal the feeding place of a pod of fin whales. Uummannaq Fjord is a rich place and the food chain is hard at it this morning. The fins, the second largest living thing on the planet (after the Blue Whale) languidly strain the salty water for plankton and krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans that form the basis of the food chain.
Krill are also eaten by smaller fish, which are eaten by larger fish and sea birds circling in the hundreds. These are fulmers, one of the most common Arctic sea birds, and they swoop and dip down into the water looking for the next meal.
But on board, all eyes are trained on the whales. We see several groups of them in the space of a couple of hours. They surface close to the ship, undisturbed, and continue to feed. Then they take a breath and dive, their long backs broken only by a tiny rear fin that sits near the beginning of their tail. (Arctic whales lack the large dorsal fin of other whales because it allows them to use their backs to break and surface through ice.)
The fjord is full of ice, although not as much as in Disko Bay. Leaving the whales in peace, we head further up the fjord to Uummannaq. We are in town on the day the community of 1200 celebrates its 250th anniversary. Coming from Canada, it seems a remarkable achievement. There are only a handful of towns or cities in my country that old (although there are a great many sites that were occupied or used for thousands of years by Indigenous Peoples prior to European settlement).
Uummannaq is a beautiful spot. Set beneath a massive granite heart-shaped mountain, its red, green, yellow and blue houses seem to glow in the sunlight. Uummannaq is not the busy tourist town that Ilulissat is, but it has its appeal and draws people for a few weeks or months. Sometimes they stay for years, like Ann Andraesen.
Ann is a friend of GRID-Arendal’s and has helped on the Many Strong Voices photo project known as Portraits of Resilience. Ann was our main contact in the community when the project was starting and students at the children’s home she runs took part in the project. Later, they joined other student photographers on the project in Copenhagen for the UN climate change conference in December 2009. Today, their works are displayed on the side of a building on the town’s main square. They provide a backdrop when Ann, along with Greenland Premier Aleeqa Hammond, and others, receive medals to honour their contributions to Greenland.
Ann is one of the driving forces behind much of the art that is on display everywhere and celebration taking place in the community today. The children’s home began over 80 years ago to look after the sons and daughters of people sent away for TB treatment. It continues today as a safe place for young people who come from broken homes or need a refuge or support to continue in school.
After the speeches on the main square, and several songs by an excellent local choir (Greenlandic choirs are famous around the world), an impromptu Students on Ice singing troupe takes the to the stage. And takes over the front of the stage. There are so many of us that we fill the space and sing a song written the day before by Ian Tamblyn, a well-known Canadian folks singer who is also a polar adventurer.
Ian has coached us well and, despite only two quick and off-key run-throughs on board that morning, we do not disgrace ourselves. In fact we sound pretty good. The local audience appreciates the effort and applauds vigorously.
It’s a good thing we followed Ian’s advice: “No sense over rehearsing.”
Uummannaq, Greenland © John Crump.
Uummannaq, Greenland © John Crump.