Greenland’s Bowhead Bonanza

Text by Colin Field. Photography by Kari Medig.

It was supposed to be a ski vacation in Greenland. The plan was to hop on a sailboat, sail up and down the fjords, skin up mountains, ski down them, then hop back on the boat. I waited and waited in Reykjavik for my connecting flight to Greenland’s capital city of Nuuk, but it never happened. My plans were dashed on the bergs of Greenland by weather. I simply couldn’t get there on time. There was an arctic storm in Nuuk and nothing was flying in or out. And when the storm was still raging the next day it became clear – I missed the boat. I literally missed the boat. And there was no way of catching it. A week later, the flight to Nuuk went as planned. And my next flight from Nuuk to Maniitsoq also went as planned even though, to a non-northerner like myself, it seemed like a blizzard outside. The locals claim Greenland has some of the best pilots in the world. I don’t doubt it.

The only problem was that this week, there weren’t any skiers on board. I wouldn’t be burning 5000 calories a day. I wouldn’t leave the trip fitter than I’d been all year and I wouldn’t have the thrill of a lifetime skiing down into the fjords of Greenland. Instead, I would spend the next week whale watching. Something I would never sign up for. They call our trip an expedition. Anywhere else in the world, it would be a tour. Or a cruise. But because of the extremes here – namely, the remote and unforgiving environment – they call it an expedition. And it feels like one.

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From the second I board the 56-metre schooner Rembrandt van Rijn, and sail away from the tiny harbour town of Maniitsoq, I’m captivated. I’m okay with the fact that I won’t be skiing. There is already so much to see. Greenland is so desolate, so sparse, so barren, and so unforgiving that it’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose to live here. And not many people do. Evidence of Paleo-Eskimo cultures have been discovered around Disko Bay that date to about 2500 BC. They survived in the harsh climate until the Thule people arrived in the 13th century AD. Considered to be the ancestors of all modern Inuit, sharing cultural, biological and linguistic characteristics, this culture, and these people, survive in Greenland to this day. Europeans started arriving in 982 AD. Exiled from his home country of Iceland, Erik the Red spent three years exploring the west coast of Greenland. When he returned to Iceland, he brought tales of a land ready for settlement. He called it Greenland, knowing that people would be interested if it had a favourable name. And he was largely successful. He returned to Greenland in 985 with a large number of Norwegian and Icelandic settlers, and established two colonies. The settlement grew to 5000 until the Little Ice Age arrived in about 1350, making the land marginal for European lifestyles.

From Mannitsoq we sail north. The ultimate goal is Disko Bay where bowhead whales are known to feed this time of year. But that’s 400 kilometres and six days north. For now, we explore the fjords.

Greenland is mostly ice cap. There are no roads here besides a few in the capital city of Nuuk. But even those don’t really lead anywhere. There’s nowhere to go. The few towns are spread along the coastline. Roads don’t connect Greenlanders; the ocean does. The only real way to get around here is boat, plane or helicopter. Inland there is nothing but ice. The majority of the island is covered in a massive ice field that compresses the land, crushing it and sending glaciers crawling outwards.


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The 56-metre Rembrandt van Rijn dwarfed by the Eternity Glacier. KARI MEDIG PHOTO.


As we sail up the Eternity Fjord, we finally have a favourable wind and put up the sails. The engine shuts off and the silence of the scene is calming; there’s nothing to do but stare in amazement at this incredible place. Mountains rise 2100 metres straight out of the ocean on either side of us. The black rock of the continent breaks up the whiteness of the snow and couloirs shoot down into the ocean like great snow-covered hallways. We sail past large car- and house-sized chunks of ice that have split off the glacier and float in the frigid waters.

And then we hear it. The massive whoosh of a whale breaching. It is our first whale sighting and everyone runs from one side of the ship to the other, hoping to see these mighty creatures. And everyone does. Mother and calf humpbacks circle us at a distance as we sail up the fjord. We see them breach multiple times. It is a beautiful sight. The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources has strict guidelines about following whales, so we just sail past them and continue up to the terminus of the fjord. Once there, we disembark and drive Zodiacs toward the glacier. We’re mesmerized by the calved icebergs that float in the cold deep cobalt-blue of the fjord. We are hundreds of metres away from the glacier, but it has an incredible hue to it. Varying shades of translucent blue shine from the massive glacier as we sit in the boat quietly, just observing. Then a loud crack like a gunshot echoes through the fjord. We look all around us waiting to see where it came from, and then we do: a building-sized block falls off the cliff-like face of the glacier. It plummets into the water in one giant chunk and throws up a shockwave that is gobbled up by pack ice surrounding the glacier. It is a humbling experience. As the ice tinkles around us, we scoop up a basketball-sized chunk. It is uniformly dimpled like an over-sized golf ball, and is perfectly clear, like a giant hunk of crystal. It makes for a delicious post-dinner scotch on the rocks.

After a puke-inducing sail up the Davis Strait, we finally arrive in Disko Bay. We spend our last day here. This is where icebergs from the Ilulissat glacier gather and speck the sea with surrealistic scenery. The blue and white ice floats in unreal shapes and patterns that you can stare at for hours. It’s a perfect day: bluebird skies, zero wind, zero waves. The sun is strong and warm and it’s hard to believe we are now above the Arctic Circle. We’re searching for whales here. And then we spot one. The first one appears as a speck off in the distance. A spurt of water shoots up into the air as the whale takes a deep breath and then drifts calmly. We watch as he drifts along, relaxing in the warmth of the sun before he dives, sending his massive tail above the waters and disappearing from view. Then we spot another. And another. “They’re bowhead whales,” says Jan. “They’re hunting for krill together.” For the rest of the day the 23 passengers run from port to starboard, from bow to stern, their cameras snapping away every time a whale surfaces. The captain lets the vessel drift quietly, occasionally turning the engine on to manoeuvre around icebergs.


“There’s one!” shouts the Danish passenger. “And another!” shouts the Briton. Scanning from horizon to horizon, we see whales everywhere. All of them bowheads. All of them eating, breathing and diving, sending their tails into the air before they disappear. The day is so beautiful the crew sets up a barbecue on the back deck and serves a big bowl of what they call Greenlandic punch and just before the chicken, ribs and sausages are served, someone shouts: “There’s one right there!”

And there it is. A massive male bowhead whale surfaces 15 metres to starboard. We can hear him breathing. We can see the imperfections and scars in his grey mottled skin. He drifts there silently, head pointing directly at us. Behind him a 55-metre-high iceberg floats majestically. It is the scene we have all been waiting for. Every passenger and crewmember is perched along the starboard gunwale, knowing that the trip’s climax is seconds away. And then he dives. He curves gently downwards, and the length of his body slithers through the water silently. Then the silhouette of his massive tail breaks the ocean and curls in the air silently as his body swims downward. The sheer size of the animal is stupendous. Everyone on board ahhhs with delight and then the whale is gone. He probably swims directly beneath us. It is 97 metres deep here. Just the kind of depth bowheads like. Everyone stares in wonder.

It is an incredible moment. One I will remember for the rest of my life. With that, dinner is served, drinks are passed around and festive music blasts from someone’s iPod. We feast the trip to an end. We drink to the crew. To the new friends we’ve made, and of course, to the whales. The sky takes on a magnificent alpenglow of yellows, reds, pinks and purples. The icebergs and mountains create scenery in all the brightest colours you can imagine. And around us, the whales continue to surface. They’re all keeping their distance now, but they’re there. We see them in groups of twos and threes, spurting out water and then showing their tails in beautiful displays of nature. We feast to the experience, to the adventure, but most of all we feast to Greenland. This place captured my imagination the instant I saw it on a map in public school. Why was such a large white island called Greenland? I never thought I’d actually get the chance to visit the place. But I feel absolutely blessed to have done so. As does everyone on board.