Ilulissat goings on
by Guest Blogger
August 15, 2005
Greetings from Ilulissat, southeast of Disko Island.
We arrived here two days ago after a day and a half transit from Nuuk,
the capital of Greenland. We were at anchor yesterday but tied up at a
dock this morning for open boats later today. A mid-sized fishing boat
was already at the dock when we came in, leaving not much room to
maneuver the Arctic Sunrise into place. Even so, Arne “parked” the ship
as easily as I would my car, except there is a huge difference between
my comparatively tiny Subaru and a 900-ton ship.
The main attraction here is the glacier in Ilulissat Fjord. The Danish
name for the town and the glacier is Jakobshavn, but it’s more
appropriate and politically correct to refer to them by their
Greenlandic name: Ilulissat. Ilulissat glacier is easily accessible from
the town of Ilulissat, making it the most studied glacier in Greenland.
It’s the world’s fastest moving glacier at 14km/year (beating out
Kangerdlugssuaq by 0.2km/year!), and it doubled its speed and retreated
10km between 1992 and 2003. I’m mentioning this since all of the
scientific research and articles Ive seen on the glacier refer to it as
“Jakobshavn Glacier” or “Jakobshavn Isbrae,” so keep that in mind if you
Google the name to get more information.
At any rate, I went ashore yesterday with Martina, Nick (photographer),
Andreas (videographer) and Gunilla (Swedish journalist). The harbor is
filled with fishing boats from small skiffs to small trawlers, and the
worlds largest halibut processing plant sits on the dock right behind
us. Martin (cook) traded half a carton of cigarettes for a huge garbage
bag filled with cod that was so fresh it was still moving.
Martina cold-called a tourist shop because it had the word “nature” in
its name, which turned out to be a very lucky call. The shop owner is
from Italy but has been in Greenland for 25 years and speaks fluent
Greenlandic, Danish and English. He hooked us up with an Inuit hunter,
Niels, and within a half hour of walking into the shop Niels was telling
us how climate change has affected his ability to hunt and fish. Niels
offered to take Nick, Andreas and Gunilla out in his boat so they could
see where he fishes.
While they were doing that, Martina and I walked through town putting up
posters about today’s open boats. It didnt take long to figure out that
Ilulissat is different from other communities we’ve visited in
Greenland. For one, a lot of tourists come here to backpack, dog sledge,
and see the glacier and ice sheet. Between tourism and the thriving
fishing industry, the economy seems to be doing ok and there appears to
be a whole lot less unemployment. Yes, there are obvious downsides to
tourism, and if not done sustainably, then fishing has its own set of
problems. But if a town has to develop itself economically, then given
the choice between tourism and oil and gas development, I’d choose
tourism any day.
Lots of people here – Greenlandic and Danes alike – ask us about the
sealing issue. It’s been really good to be able to listen to peoples
concerns and then respond with what Greenpeace did and did not do
vis-a-vis the seal issue. Explaining that Greenpeace never opposed sealing in
Greenland and that we dont oppose their current hunting and fishing
goes a long way to mend relationships. Of course, there will always be
people who dislike Greenpeace regardless of what we say and do, but
that’s the same wherever we go. Millie, the Greenlandic translator who
was on board for the first half of the trip, told us that for many
Greenlanders, its important for them to get issues off their chest, and
once theyve been aired, they can move on. Of course that is a
simplistic way of describing a cultural attribute, but it does seem to
be the case with folks we speak with. It’s a very practical,
compassionate and forgiving way to maneuver through the world.
It’s easy to bridge from the sealing issue to how climate change is
affecting and will continue to affect sea ice, and how that in turn
affects hunting. Everyone we’ve spoken to has a story to tell about how
the weather has changed: it’s not as cold as it used to be, it’s hotter
than it ever has been, the ice has changed, they can no longer dog sled
for as many months per year, or some other anecdotal evidence about
climate change. All the people we’ve met are unanimously in favor of
Greenpeace’s climate work in Greenland. Many have said they hope we can
amplify their voices so that industrialized countries hear the message
that climate change is an urgent problem and requires immediate action.
Climate change is a threat to their very existence and we certainly
don’t have to tell them that. As a related aside, the vice mayor of
Ilulissat provided great testimony on video about the impact of climate
change on this community and on Greenlandic culture, but he started out
his interview by basically asking, “do you mind if I begin by explaining
how grateful I am that Greenpeace is here and how thankful I am for your
work on climate change?” Clearly, our work and message on climate change
is very well received and the potential for future campaigning is enormous.
Today’s open boats were very successful. Hundreds of people showed up at
the ship between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. and again from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. The ship was
packed the entire time. The earlier open boat had a good mix of European
tourists from a cruise ship that’s in town for a day, as well as many
Ilulissat residents. Members of the Danish Parliament arrived on a boat
that tied up near the Arctic Sunrise, so Thom (radio operator) walked
over with a bunch of pamphlets and invited them on board to see the
ship. Many of them accepted the offer, and it was great to speak with
them, too. I can’t imagine having an impromptu, honest and forthright
conversation with any member of the U.S. Congress, especially on board a
The evening open boat was punctuated by the return of our helicopter.
Before the open boat started the helicopter flew off with Arne to
Ilulissat Fjord so he could check out the ice conditions and report back
to a Jason (a scientist working with us on board) about whether it would
be at all possible to bring a ship into the fjord to undertake
scientific measurements. There were about 100+ people on board the ship
and once we knew the helicopter would be back within three minutes, we
corralled them all to safe viewing places forward of the ship’s crane.
It was quite dramatic and no doubt a memorable event for all of our
Tomorrow morning we pick up two Italian TV journalists, then head north
for a few hours to a new anchorage where we’ll document the melt lakes
on the ice sheet. More on that soon.