Day 9: Thar she blows! – Isabella Bay, Baffin Island (Sept 05)

We wanted Bowhead whales, we got Bowhead whales!

While we were lining up for breakfast this morning, I overheard some chatter from a staff member’s walkie-talkie that some whales had been spotted from the ship’s bridge. Quickly putting down my breakfast I left the dining hall to see if I could spot them for myself. A PA announcement was made shortly after I left, notifying the rest of the people on board that they should make their way up to the bridge to have a look for whales.

Sure enough, a whale spout could be seen every couple of minutes and even the heads and backs of what were positively identified as Bowhead whales. These marine mammals are very shy and do not like being around boats of any kind so we are very lucky to have seen them. Until recently they were considered an endangered species but their population has been growing on the Atlantic coast. One of the reasons for their low population was their popularity with whale hunters; the other name for Bowheads is the Greenland Right whale because it was the “right” sort of whale to hunt: slow and it floats when it is killed. In all we spotted perhaps 6 different whales.

I must apologize because I did not get a good photograph of the whales and there was little else worthy of photographing today. Instead please enjoy a couple of other photographs of the ship and arctic.

Today was a longer day out on the open ocean so we spent some more time in the presentation room of the ship. In the morning, historian Katie Murray spoke about the Vikings and their forays into Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. The main character fr om the Viking sagas is Erik the Red, who does not sound as though he was a very agreeable fellow. He was born in Norway but was banished to Iceland after being accused of murder. After a time he quarreled with his neighbours and he was banished to an island near Iceland. Yet another bloody quarrel left Erik branded an outlaw so he fled west to a land that he had heard about from a fisherman. Upon his return to Iceland, he convinced a many people to come with him to colonize a land he named “Greenland”. Clearly even back in 986 CE, branding was extremely important.

The tales of Erik the Red and Vikings in the north come down to us from two literary sources: Erik the Red’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders. Erik’s Saga says that his son Leif Erikson went west two days sail from Greenland to what would have been Baffin Island. The Saga of the Greenlanders also tells of this journey to a place named Helluland (land of flat stones) and of a journey south to Markland (in Labrador) and Vinland (northern Newfoundland).  Archaeological evidence of Viking presence in North America was confirmed in 1960 when the site of L’Anse aux Meadows was discovered. The site included several large buildings but little evidence for continuous occupation, suggesting that this may have functioned as a trading post. More recent discoveries on southern Baffin Island point to another possible trading post at Tanfield and there is further evidence that is yet to be published.

Our afternoon presentation was given by Wayne Broomfield about his work with Parks Canada at Torngat National Park. This remote park at the northern most tip of Labrador is located on traditional Inuit lands known as Nunasiavut. The Inuit from the region were forcibly removed as a part of Canadian government mandates in the 20th century. Now their Nation is recognized with its own government and is in charge of managing the park. A base camp has been established outside the entrance to the park since the elders and members of the community who are on the management board decided that there would be no permanent infrastructure inside the park. Base camp is run primarily off solar power and has fully Inuit staff from the Nunasiavut (Labrador) and Nunavik (Quebec) nations. Each year, Inuit elders are brought in to the base camp and then travel into the park with visiting tourists. This area was once the home for these elders and they teach the visitors about their traditional culture and how they used to live on the land.

It is important to remember that the history of the Arctic is not just the history of Franklin and European explorers. There have been many interactions between past cultures, and an Inuit culture and history that stretches back to time immemorial.

Words and photographs by Duncan MacLeod – Curator, Vancouver Maritime Museum