Day 5 |
Sep 07, 2011

Qaqortoq and Hvalsey, Greenland 

By Robin Aiello, Marine Biologist

Co-ordinates: 60°42´N, 46°02 W
Weather: bright sunlight with very few clouds on the horizon
Air Temperature: 7C 

Today actually started last night with some beautiful displays of the aurora borealis – the Northern Lights. We were very lucky that the overcast skies cleared just as we anchored off Qaqortoq. The officers on watch called the Expedition Team and reported activity in the skies – so in true expedition style, Conrad Combrink, our Expedition Leader, made an announcement throughout the ship. Soon, most of the guests were up on the outer decks “ohh”ing and “ahh”ing at the light show above us. It was really spectacular – the dark skies above the lights of the small town were pulsing with pale green light.

They lasted for about an hour before fading away. I decided to stay out a bit longer to see if they might start up again, and was surprised by a sudden ‘gasping’ sound right out in front of the ship. This sound repeated itself over and over again, and I soon realised that there was a whale close by. It must have been lolling around, maybe sleeping, on the surface. The ‘gasping’ sound was the air exhalation every time it breathed through its blowhole. The haunting sound was the only sound that I could hear in the deep silence of the fjord – it seemed to echo off the fjord walls. These magnificent animals are able to shut down half their brain at a time to sleep, while keeping the other half awake and aware of their surroundings.

Eventually, I had to drag myself away and back to bed because we had a full day of activities in only a few hours time!

In the morning, we were heading to one of my favourite Greenland stops – Qaqortoq, a small town of about 3,500 people. Although it seems small by our standards, for Greenland this is a large city! From the ship we had great views of the town and its brightly coloured houses that covered the mountain slopes.

We met our guides just after 8am and soon we were off on an hour and a half walking tour of the town highlights. We meandered through town, stopping at several important sites, including the two local churches, Greenland’s oldest water fountain built in 1928, and the famous rock carving artwork called the “Stone and Man” exhibit, which is a series of carvings done right in the natural rock faces.

The stop that I personally enjoyed the most was the local fish market. This was where I was stationed for the morning – greeting each of the tour groups as they dropped in and telling them about the different fish and animals on display.

On one table was a selection of seal meat – already cut into small pieces for sale. The locals had brought in two ringed seals and one harp seal in the morning. Seal meat is a very important staple in the Greenlander’s diet.

Throughout the day, fishermen brought in their fresh catches of Atlantic salmon. This salmon is caught right nearby in the fjord, using gillnets that they set daily. Greenland is not allowed to export any of the salmon they catch – it can only be sold within Greenland. This arrangement was established in 1999 and was based on the fact that almost all the salmon are actually from other countries, and too much fishing off Greenland would have huge negative impacts on the salmon stocks of both northern Europe and America.

Salmon are migratory fish, and can travel great distances to find good food. About 30% of the salmon stock found off west Greenland comes from Northern Europe, while the other 70% comes from North America (Canada and northern USA). The fish come all this way to feed on the plankton-rich waters off southern West Greenland. They might spend anywhere from 1 – 5 years in these waters fattening up before returning to the rivers where they hatched. In Greenland, there is actually only one river that has its own breeding group of salmon, and this, they believe, is a relic population left behind after the Ice Age.

Soon after we were all back onboard, three local kayakers paddled out to the ship and put on a wonderful display of kayaking skill, including many different styles of rolling. They made it look so easy, but being a kayaker myself, I can tell you that rolling one of these boats is NOT an easy task!

The relocation to our next site only took about an hour, and soon we were anchored off Hvalsey. This site is located in a pretty little fjord with green grassy slopes. This is where sheep are raised, and we could see a few wandering around the slopes.

Hvasley is a very important historical site, as it represents the last stage of the Viking period here in Greenland. Our archaeologist, Claire Allum, brought the history of the place alive to our guests – creating a mental image of what life must have been like here in the 14th century. It set the scene for what we are going to see tomorrow – the site called Brattahlid that represents the beginning of Viking settlement.

Luckily, the sun remained shining all day so that we had incredible views of the rugged coastline of the fjord as we sailed the short distance to Brattahlid. Maybe, if we are lucky, we will have clear skies again tonight with the possibility of more Northern Lights!!!