Nunatsiaq Online
FEATURES August 14, 2008 - 3:00 pm

'We're back with our ancestors.'

Kangiqsujuaq gets first bowhead in a century

Justin Noble - Special to Nunatsiaq News

KANGIQSUJUAQ - Noah Annahatak thrust a harpoon into a bowhead whale Aug. 10, marking the first bowhead kill on Nunavik's Hudson Strait coast in more than a century.

"We were really nervous," Annahatak said later. "It's huge! But we got close to it, and we got it."

Back in town, everyone heard the news over the radio. Some were at church, others at dinner. A few dropped what they were doing and sped out to sea to greet the hunters. One was Tuumasi Pilurtuut.

"This is so special for us," Pirlurtuut said, practically speechless with joy. "It makes us proud; we're back with our ancestors."

With the arrival of Pilurtuut's boat out by the bowhead , a great cheer went up and several strips of maktak were immediately passed aboard.

"It's pretty good," said Pilurtuut between chews. "Better than beluga."

Annahatak and 50 other hunters had been out on the water near Kangiqsujuaq, searching for a bowhead since Aug. 1. They failed to snag a whale in time for the Bowhead Whale Music Festival, organized in honour of the hunt.

But around 6 p.m. last Saturday,  hunters finally spotted a 15-metre-long whale.

Annahatak threw his harpoon, designed to plunge a grenade filled with water and inert gas deep inside the whale. Other hunters flung traditional harpoons and fired rifles.

Blood sprayed from the blowhole, but the bowhead whale didn't die.

Some recalled how a bowhead whale was lanced in the 1960s and how it was lashed to a boat and slices of maktak were even severed from its tail fluke. But somehow that whale wriggled free and escaped.

Shortly before 8 p.m., whaling captain Aquujaq Qisiiq pulled alongside the bowhead whale. Annahatak fired the second and final grenade-loaded harpoon. Three minutes later the whale was dead.

The Nanuq, the boat to which the bowhead whale was secured, traveled back to shore by night. Lines of turquoise hung from the night sky like a billowing curtain - the northern lights making their first appearance of the season.

The bowhead whale reached Akulivik, a cove near town, at 6 a.m. Sunday. The 49-tonne whale was moored to three orange buoys on the edge of the bay where it bobbed, with a long knife stuck in its top, until early afternoon, when the tide lowered.

Canoes ferried onlookers to the site and the slicing of maktak began. Slabs were shorn off, hooked, pulled ashore and then passed around. Maktak was laid atop plywood strips, ­Tupperware tops and bare rock, then diced with ulus and ­pocket knives.

Naalak Nappaaluk, who at age 80 is one of the few Nunavimmiut to remember tales of bowhead hunts that once took place, sat on a rock with a pad of maktak nearby.

"Today I've seen people standing on the bowhead for the first time," Nappaaluk said. "It's overwhelming."

Manon Simard, a marine biologist with Makivik, had been waiting months for this moment. 

Since it's impossible to stun a bowhead whale and drag it ashore for study as is done with some mammals, gathering information on them is hard unless a dead whale washes ashore.

Simard and a technician from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans planned to snap photographs of distinct markings, such as white patches that form naturally on the bowhead whale's lower lip, and collect samples of blood, blubber, baleen, liver, kidney and both eyes to determine its age.

Scientists recently dated a harpoon fragment in a bowhead whale caught off Alaska to 1880, and bowheads may live as long as 150 or even close to 200 years, but the age of the whale caught off Kangiqsujuaq is not yet known.

Samples of the bowhead whale will go to the Nunavik Research Centre in Kuujjuaq and a DFO lab in Winnipeg.

As for the maktak, it will be shipped to communities around Nunavik, so everyone can have a taste.

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