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

Greenpeace ship.

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

visitors.

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.

– Melanie

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