It reeks of crab urine on board. The Aalut steers toward a buoy. A winch reels in a rope with bow nets out of the water. Seamen pick the crabs out of the nets, then throw them back into the ocean with fresh bait. Fifty bow nets at every buoy, six buoys per day, one thousand five hundred kilograms of crab in two days. The cannon at the bow remains unused. It is used for firing harpoons. The Aalut is a whaler.
We reached the Greenland city of Ilulissat on August 2nd. The days of the midnight sun were gone, however the nights were still brightly lit. It took a weighty recommendation to convince ship owner Aqqalu to let journalists on board his whaler: The Europeans are known to be against whale hunting. An eyewitness account of these activities from such a perspective was feared to stir negative propaganda.
We travel northward along the coast. The scenery is magnificent. The water is bluish black under the blue sky, dark olive green under the clouds, turquoise between the icebergs, and, during the evening and on into the night, reflects the yellow and orange of the sky in the north. The resins of the tundra plants are smelled far out at sea.
Commercial hunting of large whales has been banned by a ruling of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1986. The IWC is a unique setup; founded as a hunting supervisory committee (and not a species preservation organization), it does not prohibit hunting in and of itself, but rather restricts the quota to zero. Without this sanction in place, a few species would, without a doubt, have already been eliminated today. However, members of the IWC are in profound disagreement. It is an open secret that African and Caribbean countries only joined the IWC to support a loosening of the whale protection ruling (lured by Japanese development aid money). On the other hand, the inland country of Switzerland, for example—as unique member of a whaling commission—was “invited to join the IWC in order to assist in establishing a moratorium,” says Swiss IWC delegate Thomas Althaus. Today, Japan and Norway are the only countries that hunt on a massive scale, the former declaring its commercial quest for scientific reasons, with the latter refusing to recognize the ruling passed in 1986. The hunting of small whales—including belugas, orcas, and dolphins—is not regulated by the IWC.
Explicitly permitted and seldomly disputed among experts is the so-called “aboriginal subsistence hunting” of a few groups of people living in the northern polar region. Greenland may only kill 19 fin and 190 minke whales per year to feed its 56,000 inhabitants. Export of the products is prohibited.
Two-and-a-half days go by before we see the first whales. They are humpbacks, which cannot be hunted. Whales are hunted by cruising up and down the coastline until one just happens to be spotted. Now and then, fishermen radio others in the area when they see activity. Radar, Echolot, and a satellite-based positioning system are used for navigation. The large brass compass on its oak base (the needle points northwest, 319 degrees) is hardly of use in a situation like this; scoping out whales is solely the work of the human eye. A pair of binoculars is onboard, however they also aren’t of much use, as they restrict the field of vision too much. The crow’s nest is constructed of two ropes and a close-weave net stretched between the mast columns 4 meters above deck.
As the Aalut heads back to the home port of Ilulissat three days later - with an empty cargo hold at that—ship owner Aqqalu decrees that we now have to fish for crabs. So the men begrudgingly do this for two days. On the evening of the second day, two waterspouts are suddenly spotted on the starboard side of the vessel! The respiration of both whales casts a mist of crystalline white against the backdrop of the rust red stone arcades and gravel beaches of Disko island. A shimmering, blue-black dorsum emerges at the water’s surface: it’s a fin whale, alright. It heaves forward. The whale blows another spout, gradually rises above the water, the fin appears for a brief moment, then dives down with the entire creature in one fell swoop. Here comes the second whale. The animals are beautiful, yet gigantic, graceful, majestic. In short: simply marvelous.
A fin whale is more than twice as long as the Aalut; without the aid of a larger ship, it couldn’t tow such girth back to port. But a minke whale was also spotted, as heard over radio. At up to 10 meters in length, these animals are the smallest species of large whales. The Aalut unloads the crabs onto a factory vessel, then goes back out to sea just before midnight. After a half hour, Albert catches a glimpse of the minke whale from the helm. The cannon (caliber: 65 millimeters) is loaded and ready, the grenade (lined with 22 grams of PETN explosive) is affixed to the tip of the harpoon, the ropes are properly coiled. Albert takes over the cannon. There should be no more than 20 meters between an animal of this size and the point of fire. The whale slowly but surely rises to the surface. It has no inkling of the danger signaled by the loud chugging of the engine. The Aalut inches nearer and nearer, reducing speed to three knots. The whale dives, resurfaces a few minutes later, the Aalut corrects its course, then the whale dives again. Finally, at a quarter past one in the morning, the whale reappears, this time directly in front of the bow. Albert shoots, and the harpoon yanks the rope with the yellow buoy into the water.
At this moment, and in the presence of the hunters, we didn’t dare let the word “Greenpeace” cross our lips. Now, radio stations are broadcasting hourly about protesters aboard the Greenpeace ship Artic Sunrise—parked before the American air force base Thule in North Greenland—as they openly denounce the Star Wars plans.
The August 2nd edition of the government affiliated Grønlandsposten, a copy of which is in the cabin, has dedicated four articles to the story. None of them show any sympathy or understanding for the environmental activists. Greenland’s Prime Minister is quoted as saying that many of the nation’s citizens would otherwise have “traumatic flashbacks” to Greenpeace and its campaigns against whale and seal hunting. Two hundred Greenlanders have demonstrated against the organization in the capital city of Nuuk.
We have been living with the sea and the whale for centuries. Then along came the Whites, who all but eradicated the species, only to turn around, point their finger at us, and tell us we couldn’t hunt anymore. This is what “Greenpeace” stands for in the hearts and minds of Greenland hunters. It is a symbol of the arrogance industrial nations display toward other cultures. According to the Greenland author of a book on whale hunting, entitled, “Inuit, Whaling, and Sustainability” (Walnut Creek, 1998), whale rights activists are nothing but a bunch of city slickers for whom nature is an ideal and who “have never had the opportunity to cultivate a realistic, meaningful relationship with the Earth and its many creatures.”
However, it is indeed the Eskimo considered to be more closely interlinked with nature than anyone else on the planet. Just as whales have developed an aura of mysticism around them, so, too, have the Eskimos as a people. Make no mistake about it, traditional whale hunting lobbyists are well aware of this. According to the above-referenced book, the Greenlanders believe that the whale chooses its own fate by voluntary sacrifice. The hunters laugh us out of the room as we ask them if this is true.
It is of no interest to the hunters that they also profit from whale protection. They have no feelings of remorse about decimating the animals. Thus, the world should get off their backs, so the thinking goes. Whale protection is meddling in other people’s business. Besides—Greenland contends—the necessity of these so-called “protection zones” in places like the South Pacific has not been “scientifically proven.”
Can one miss hitting something as big as a whale when only 20 meters away? You bet. By the time the cannon is turned around, there’s hardly any time to aim. Albert misses the mark, the whale is gone. No one is ready to go to bed just yet. Albert is the first one back to the cabin. It is just after 4 in the morning as day breaks. The whale vanishes forever. It’s 9 a.m. as we arrive in the port of Qeqertarsuaq. There’s almost no one on the street. The sun starts to warm things up.
The first unsuccessful week segues into the second. This time, we’re headed south. The first leg takes us past the icebergs that feed into the ice fjord of Ilulissat. The seagulls sit along the edges of the icebergs facing the wind. This enables them to quickly “fall” back into flight. We see 43 whales in six days, among them oversized fin whales, protected humpbacks, and only a couple of minke whales, the pursuits of which ended in a bed of fog. Supposedly the Katri—the larger, sister ship to Aqqalus—would stand by ready to assist us if we shot a fin whale. Nevertheless, decisions are made quickly, only to be reversed, and seamen are not exactly big on words. One time, the Aalut stayed an entire day in the port during fantastic weather as it waited for a radio message from the Katri—to no avail.
During one of our nights we encounter a school of 6 fin whales whales. The orange clouds reflect off the water as if in whisky. We can hear the animals blowing water spouts. Soon thereafter, we find ourselves amidst a school of whales. They’re everywhere, swimming fore, aft, larboard, and starboard of the ship. Traveling with the animals—even without the intent to hunt—is awesome. Indeed the hunter himself, who stalks whales for years on end, must be given the chance to take it all in and be mesmerized by every glimpse of the giants as they bob up and down in such close proximity. The coastal landscape is grandiose, the days monotonous. There’s not a lot to do onboard, save for the occasional game of cards, the casual glance in a cheap porno magazine, a smoke here and there, and seal hunting. Time doesn’t need to be killed; it passes of its own accord. Meat is a big part of the meals around here, with a few potatoes, rice, and onion soup—served on a daily basis. Heart of pig is from Denmark, lamb from South Greenland and, as the purchased poultry is gone, seal is brought out. Seal meat is very dense, yet the liver is extraordinarily tender, which is eaten raw and at body temperature. Between meals, one eats apples from South Tyrol, sausage and cheese from Denmark, and dried amassetts—herring-sized fish—with whale blubber). According to the IWC, whale hunting is only considered an act of subsistence when a people are reliant on it for a source of food and a “cultural necessity” exists. Strictly speaking, no one in the world fulfills these criteria. In the “Pisiffik” in Ilulissat, you can get everything that can be bought at a run-of-the-mill European supermarket. However all that which is neither hunted nor fished is imported; outside of minimal sheep farming in the south, Greenland has no agriculture. Fishing and hunting (primarily of marine mammals) are the only sustainable means of gathering food the island has at its disposal. Not that the thought of long-term sustainability and ecology crossed the hunters’ minds. On the other hand, “Why should we import meat when we have all the whale we could possibly want?”, says Aqqalu.
Albert finally found his whale right as he least expected it. After two hard weeks at sea and a two-day rest, the Aalut is back out fishing crabs again. Our ship is located twenty nautical miles north of Ilulissat as a fin whale whale is reported over radio at 69°20’ North, 50°58’ West. This time, the Katri is ready to spring into action. Albert takes over the cannon. Soon, the whale surfaces thirty meters in front of the bow of the Aalut. It spouts, then lingers: Albert shoots. The grenade explodes, the hit whale writhes in pain, then sinks.
Hunting is not a pretty sight; the animal must be killed. Whoever is appalled at the thought of a dying whale should ask themselves how many months or even years the animal they had for lunch lived in unfit conditions. Such is the thinking among whale hunters. “How,” they ask, “can people condemn whale hunting when those very people raise cattle and swine in such a perverse way that they become sick?” Whale rights activists consider this way of thinking to be a weak argument for hunting marine mammals, but, at the same time, believe it points out the need for us to make a conscientious effort to take better care of our own livestock. Fair enough. Yet the double standard exists, and it detracts from the credibility of those who oppose whale and seal hunting. Getting Europeans and Americans to side with protectors of majestic whales and seals, with their human-like faces and baby eyes, doesn’t take too much legwork. Plus it’s rather “sexy” for environmental organizations and the like. Even McDonalds and Burger King took part in a 1987 boycott against the purchase of Icelandic fish, as the country wanted to press on with its whale hunting activities.
Back to the present: The whale is now bound to the Aalut with the harpoon line. It’s not a pretty sight. The whale grenade approved by the IWC is supposed to provide a “humane death.” The catch is that it has to hit a vital organ. But our harpoon hits the whale behind the head, with the tip tearing through the body all the way to the other side. It is Saturday night. Clouds are rolling in. The ocean lies black and flat. The hunters shoot the bleeding animal with guns as long as daylight holds. On Sunday, just before noon, the whale finally dies. Why don’t the men use a second grenade to put the thing out of its misery? “One whale, one grenade,” explains the bookkeeper later in the office. “One has to do it.” The reason is cost: one whale grenade runs for 6,500 Danish Crowns (850 Euro).
It’s the increasing interest of the IWC members on “humane killing” that makes defending aboriginal whaling a hard job, Greenland’s IWC representative Amalia Jessen says. “Some countries want us to collect scientific data on how a whale dies, on the amount of stress hormones in its brain – you can’t do that if you are a traditional hunter.”
A storm develops in in the afternoon; snow mixes in with the rain. In an attempt to drag the dead whale onto a small skerry in a calm bay, the cable gets caught up in Katris’ propeller. The ship must be brought to Ilulissat for repairs. The tail fin rests on the rock; the receding tide will uncover the rest of the animal. A dozen hunters now have twenty hours of work ahead of them as they begin to cut up the cadaver early Monday morning.
Albert is satisfied. Measuring in at 24 meters in length, the full-grown male is a beauty. With knives and a handsaw, 40 tons of muscle and fat are systematically removed. There are no chainsaws, no cable winches. The firm, 6-to-10 centimeter thick blubber is carved out of the cadaver in 50 centimeter long strips, slotted on the sides for easy carrying. Standing on and in the cadaver, the men flense the dark muscle tissue from the skeleton. The gneiss stone gets slipperier and slipperier from the dripping blood. It is becoming more difficult for the men to maintain a solid footing on the rock with their rubber boots. Every now and then the hunters cut off a little piece of meat and pop it in their mouths; the muscle fibers—lightly salted from the sea water—can be squashed on the palate with your tongue when raw. The tough, gray-black, three millimeter thick skin tastes like hazelnut, with a hint of coconut. At first, the entire bay smells of fresh meat (as if at your local butcher’s shop); then the copper-green intestines are split open and the odor starkly reminds you of cooked, stale cabbage.
Due to the difficulties experienced while towing, the hunters brought the whale to a skerry located away from the community. But the butchering process is something of a social event. In the afternoon, motorboats arrive from Oqaatsut and Ilulissat. Children, the elderly, men and women alike slice and saw chunks from the animal, filling their bags with meat and fat. And for no charge: there’s plenty for everybody.
Wherein lies the fascination that whale hunting brings out? Is it the mythos of the creature that was exalted in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? Melville compares whale hunting to God’s battle with the leviathan. When an old man uses his handsaw to carve slices out of the tail fin, whose wingspan is more than double the length of his own body, the hubris of the human project—the exploitation of the Earth—becomes clear. This graphic impact vanishes when such activities are blown up to greater proportions: The poisoning of entire oceans is less spectacular than a duel between man (with all of his killing tools) and a helpless animal. Studies in Japan and on the Faroe Islands have proven that there are high concentrations of DDT, PCB, mercury, cadmium and other poisons in whale meat. In 1998, the government of the latter recommended that residents do not eat whale more than once or twice a month. Those women who are pregnant and breast-feeding should stop consummation of the meat altogether. Will whale meat—which is very valuable to Greenlanders because of its vitamins—soon be off limits because of the toxic substances it contains? Ship owner Aqqalu blows the studies off as Ivy League mumbo jumbo, suspecting antihunting propaganda. The hunters, after all, are “in the know”: The whale is doing just fine.
It’s now dusk and time for a break. Albert cooks up some whale, which we eat with sweet pickled cucumbers and mustard. As the Katri rounds the bay, all fixed up and ready to go, the work continues on through four o’clock in the morning. Hooked to a steel cable, the Katri tugs on the cadaver. The cable clenches tight, spraying sparks across the rock. The men flee to a safe haven, as the cable tears out several times. Approximately two-thirds of the meat have been cut out of the cadaver, however it is still too heavy for the Katri to turn it. The men have to saw it up into smaller pieces. After the remaining meat has been removed, the skeleton and head are dragged out to sea and sunk. All that’s left back on the skerry are cigarette butts, a couple of paper cups, empty tins of canned food, dried-out blood spattered over the gneiss, and the white, linen sheet sized peritoneum in the small bay where the whale was.
Firm whale blubber and dark meat bring in 30 Danish Crowns (4 Euro) per kilogram at the market. The light-colored, marbled meat costs only half as much and is primarily used to feed the sled dogs. If the hunters could somehow select the most opportune time to shoot the whale, they certainly would have chosen otherwise: payday was quite a while back, and the people have little money. On the second day of sales, there’s still almost no one buying at the small, open-air village market in Ilulissat. The situation is similar in Qasiannguit, where the small cutter Tia, with its crew of three, headed to market. Aasiaat falls by the wayside; a fin whale was just killed here, too. The market is saturated. As such, the Tia decides to give it one last shot at the market in Uummannaq, which is a long day’s drive from Ilulissat.
Selling whale is a labor-intensive and costly process. A large portion of the meat will not be able to be sold fresh and will have to be dried out or frozen. If everything goes well, an entire whale brings in as much money as one-to-two weeks of crab fishing with a four-man crew. Aqqalu dreams of the day when he can export whale: “The Chinese pay 30 times the price for whale blubber.” He probably means the Japanese. Because exporting is strictly prohibited, Aqqalu says he actually should give up whale hunting from a pure economics standpoint. “Why do you still do it then?”, we ask. Aqqalu shrugs his shoulders. “That’s just how it is. Somebody has to put meat on the table.” –