Heading up the Baffin Island Coast

A view of Clyde River from the sea

The first step before heading to Scott Inlet was getting approval from the local HTA (hunting and trapping association) to tag fish, install moorings and collect data. Before leaving solid ground, the four of us (as there is only room for four scientists on the ship) waded through the fresh snow to the HTA office located in a red shack beside the community freezer.

The office was utilitarian, lit by florescent lights and a lone incandescent bulb. An uncomfortably low ceiling made me feel it was risky to stand up tall. Once white vinyl tiles covered the floor. In an economy of surfacing, the same tiles covered the chipped white painted conference table – edges held down with masking tape. Most of the table surface was consumed with a big map of the area. The walls were decorated with maps, a variety of posters including a graphic one on caribou diseases, and a wanted add for narwal tusks from someone in Vancouver who “will pay a good price.” Lined up along the walls were boxes of ammunition, rubber boots, ropes, and bolts of dull coloured fabric.

A few moments later, a group of men and one woman arrived. Introductions were made and we all sat around the conference table. We worked through a translator, an HTA member with good English, to explain our work. The group kept stern faces as we explained how the acoustic receivers work and our interest in the Greenland Halibut and Greenland Shark. The HTA members were very interested in if our instruments affect the marine mammals – an important food source for them. The agreed that knowing more about the local Greenland Halibut would help them in setting up a commercial fishery, a potential income source for the community.

However, they were baffled as to why we were interested in Greenland Shark. To them the shark were at best a nuisance. You can’t eat Greenland Shark without serious preparation as the flesh is toxic and contains high amounts of urea. If you have time, these sharks can be fermented and rendered safe to eat, but this is not something the Inuit traditionally do. Nigel, our shark expert, made a compelling explanation as to why we should care about these shark. I’ve been working with Nigel for a few years, his shark work takes him from Africa to the Arctic and his passion for these animals rubs off on me, so even with cold feet I’m excited to see them. The Greenland Shark are the top predator on the bottom of the polar seas and are needed to keep the ecosystem in balance. The HTA members appeared to remain skeptical, but willing to humor us. Ironically, the HTA chair’s last name translated to English means ‘shark’.

The HTA granted their permission asked for a community wide meeting to show everyone what we had accomplished when we finished. While in Scott Inlet, a local community member was to accompany us to see what we were doing, which has happened in previous years. We were also asked to bring back some Greenland Halibut back for the community and to take supplies to a group of hunters stranded in Scott Inlet. After the meeting, we begged a ride (there is a taxi in town, but its availability is never certain) to get our gear down to the water’s edge and then transferred to the Nuliajuk (the ship).

We couldn’t leave until the next afternoon as gale force winds and 4 metre waves were pounding the Baffin Island coast. Once conditions improved, we pulled anchor and headed north. I looked around the ship, which consists of a bridge, small lab the size of an en-suite bathroom, a kitchen/eating area, two tiny cabins and a v-berth designed to sleep six with less floor space than my bathroom. This was the total inside space to be shared with 10 others. In the v-berth, I had the bottom bunk of three on the starboard side, it took a special sort of un-graceful yoga move to get in.

On the 12th of September, Jacob, the local observer, joined the ship, we loaded groceries and headed north. On our way out of Clyde Inlet, Jacob pointed out a passing cliff with three red streaks running down the face. He said that there was an old story about a man, a dog and a bear. All three fell off the edge of the cliff leaving the red streaks, but only the man and bear survived. Occasionally, sled tracks are found behind bear footprints, as though the bear now pulls the man’s sled. I took pictures of the cliff, but the snow obscured the three red streaks.

As expected, it was rough out in Baffin Bay, the large swells tossing the ship about (and spilling vanilla in the galley, giving the ship a pleasant odor of fresh baking). The Nuliajuk is very bouncy and I tend to get sea-sick. To keep a horizon in view, I stayed up on the bridge – which also gave me a nice view of passing icebergs (I’ll write a whole post about the icebergs later).

By midnight we arrived in Scott Inlet to start work in the morning. More to follow…

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