(1st July) Sisimuit
Today was the brightest day in a while, with only a very light drizzle to contend with and considering our latitude, that was quite acceptable.
As we anchored off the port of Sisimuit around 6.30 am, Sue and I were still snug and warm under the duvet. However, when an announcement by the Captain over the Tannoy broke our slumber, “Thar be whales off the starboard side!”, I leapt into action and scarcely dressed, with camera in hand, shot onto the deck. Regular spouts from a humpback and her calf could be seen above a small low island, close by the ship. They seemed to be heading towards the open sea, I guessed on the patch of water they would emerge and bingo! I fired off two shots and they were framed and in focus. There was no dramatic breaching or tail flapping, she had been frightened by our vessel and was keeping her offspring safe by quietly slipping away into the open sea. What a great start to the day, could it get better?
We had organised a morning boat trip to an abandoned fishing village, some 8 miles down the coast. When whaling became uncommercial for the local inhabitants in the 1970s, they switched to fishing, for a while they processed around 1000 tonnes a year, but even that was insufficient to match the output of the large fishing concerns, all but one of the 131 of its inhabitants moved to Sisimuit. He died in 2010 and the place is now used by the education services to train children in survival skills, the church is used occasionally for weddings.
There were four excursions to the village and significantly we were on the last one, leaving the Ambience by local boat at 10.30 am with ten other excited shipmates. These local fishing boats do have a turn of speed, skimming and bouncing through an easing drizzle, we cut a frothy trail in no time at all to this almost forgotten home of Greenlandic ghosts and our French guide, Adam. None of the island guides we have encountered so far has been native Greenlanders, they have been Danish students, here for a few summer months to support tourism. Adam turned out to be the most amiable and best informed of all. He knew his stuff and answered all our questions with ease.
Disembarking our little craft we followed a well-trodden trail from building to building, stopping at each for Adam to describe who lived there, or what use it had been put to. Some of the structures have been maintained, but most are slowly degrading in this harsh climate. Life was outrageously difficult here, few children lived past 6 months of age and the little cemetery we visited was testimony to that cruel fact. Its last inhabitant is a 92 yrs old lady, she lives in Sisimuit and is the person responsible for Adam’s depth of knowledge. It is a shame that he has no plans to return for next year’s tourist season.
I had recollections of my visit to Chornobyl as we poked about the various buildings, nature here is not reclaiming as quick as it has in the Ukraine, plants do not grow
nearly as fast in this climate and the animal life is nowhere near as abundant. The mainly wooden structures are being destroyed in slow motion and this will probably allow the place to continue as a tourist attraction for a few more years yet.
After a couple of hours, we boarded our little fishing speed boat and raced off towards Sisimuit. Sue and I sat at the front of the craft, alongside the skipper and his teenage daughter, during our conversation Sue asked if we would see any whales on the return journey. The skipper generously retorted that as we were the last group and there was no pressure on time, let’s go and find some whales. And we did!
The first pod of Minky whales was spotted by their huge spouts, steaming many metres into the air and they didn’t dive until we got well within camera shot. The next pod spied were a long way off and by the time we had raced to their location and began circling, waiting for their return to the surface, we had to accept disappointment, they didn’t want to be seen and weren’t. Passing a small islet, no larger than a good-sized UK garden the skipper pointed out several dogs racing along the rocky shore. He explained that their owner had put his sledge dogs to run free on the island for the summer, and he came over regularly to feed them until they were collected for winter work. Soon after, we disembarked at the dockside in Sisimuit.
Joining a throng of Ambience passengers and those of a slightly smaller Norwegian ship, we wandered around this busy, but pretty and colourful fishing port. On the side of the hillside, underneath the newer and larger church is a group of buildings now used as museums, inside which you can discover the history and culture of the place, particularly the Inuit population and the whaling industry. We also ‘nosed’ around the smaller and older church, a winter turf house and had the delight of discovering one of the local sledge dogs who had five gorgeous puppies just a week ago, we gave them a good stroking!
This town is better geared for tourists than any other we have encountered so far. Besides the local Innuit who had set up small stalls with beadwork, wood and bone carvings to sell next to the landing pontoons in a port, where there are several shops directly aimed at the tourist. In one, I found a small workshop with a couple of Innuit, shaping walrus tusks into trinkets. One of the gentlemen beckoned me over to watch him make a ring with the head of a polar bear on its face, it didn’t take him long and he was obviously proud to display his skill in shaping this unusual material.
We returned by tender too late for lunch, so chose to have burgers, pizza and chips on the grill. Not the healthiest of options, but it had been a busy day and we stopped feeling guilty about our massive intake of calories after just a couple of days into the cruise. We will diet when we get home. Won’t we?
The evening show was a farce centred around a birthday party, it was very enjoyable and sent everyone off to their beds or late-night activities with a smile.
(2nd July) Ilulissat
On our way to breakfast, we were greeted by a scene which could have been taken from a clip of David Attenborough’s TV programme the ‘Blue Planet’. We were at anchor in the bay just off the very busy port of Ilulissat and icebergs were all around, but most impressive of all was the glacier off to starboard whose towers of sparkling white snow and ice dominated the horizon. It was a sunny day with thin, milky cloud cover and a jelly calm sea. Though chilly on deck, sweaters weren’t needed. The city is the largest we have encountered so far on our Greenland adventure, its boundaries hug the shoreline, extending for a good third of the bay, limited by the outflow of the glacier on one side and the inhospitable terrain on the other. There are a lot of new buildings in the process of being constructed, I would guess that this activity is limited to just a few summer months.
We had breakfast, did a couple of laps around the decks and then played table tennis until we had an early lunch at 11.30 am. We were going on a trek to the ice fjord and had to be on shore by 1.30 pm. The tender which carried us to the port was delayed for quite a while in the outer harbour as smaller local craft zipped in and out of the inner harbour preventing our large and slower ‘hippo’ from entering and manoeuvring to its designated pontoon. Several turboprops displaying the striking red and white logo ‘Greenland Air’, flew low overhead as we wallowed patiently at the entrance to the inner marina. Eventually, we chugged into a very crowded boating car park, this is a very busy port and not one for pleasure craft, these vessels squashed in around us are working machines for catching fish or transporting their owners to some far-off remote settlement. A few doubled up as tourist carriers.
Arriving on shore we found our way uphill to a large square, surrounded on three sides by a large and busy Spar supermarket. It was here that we caught a free bus which took us a couple of miles to a drop-off point next to the oddly shaped Ilulissat World Heritage Museum. On the way, we spotted where the locals tether their sledge dogs. With no convenient island for them to wander freely, these dogs (dozens of them), were chained just off the road with sufficient links to prevent them from fighting, a large plastic tub was located nearby in which I guess their food was placed. Most of the huskies were laying down enjoying the heat of the sun or were asleep, a few untethered puppies were scampering about play fighting. A strange sight, but normal and necessary for life around here when sledge dogs can be the difference between life and death in the depth winter.Next to the museum is a long wooden walkway, which meandered down a rock-strewn and boggy bed of a long-since melted ancient glacier. We had brought face nets with us against mozzy attack, yet despite it now being bright, sunny and warm there were few and we didn’t need protection. Slowly, as we neared the foot of this once creeping ice monster the side of the glacier that had impressed us so enormously on wakening came into view, sliding on its way to spilling into the bay, calving huge misshapen blocks of snow and ice into the freezing waters. Stunning I thought, as my camera began to glow hot with excited clicks, but even better was still to come.
Reaching a small inlet spattered with small, orphaned chunks we came across of series
of steps which climbed steeply up the side of this small carved valley. On reaching the top, we emerged to a scene of white magnificence. In front of us, the two arms of the glacier merged into one mighty destructive force, tearing the layers of snow carefully laid down over millennia into a jumbled, sparkling symphony of chaos. Every shape conceivable was here, from the flat and smooth to the jagged and rounded. It was as if nature had created something beautiful and then decided to start again!
After many more photos, we carefully climbed down the hillside’s granite-like rock face to be level with the glacier surface. In the past, old ladies from a village which once existed near the recently trodden walkway would throw themselves off this cliff to prevent themselves from being a burden to their community. Not a pleasant thought to hold when surrounded by such beauty and just a step away from destruction. My heart leapt into my mouth when a largish block of ice only a metre or so from my feet, rolled over with a groan as it melted and adjusted its buoyancy. Phew!!
Sitting down on a flattened section of rock to take in the view, I fired off yet more camera shots. Occasionally, this blissful, contemplative peace would be broken by random cracks and groans as the mass of ice rumbled its way to self-destruction. A reminder that we wouldn’t be welcome here for much longer.
Climbing back to the top of the hill we took in one long last look at the vastness of this awesome work of nature, fixed it in our minds and set off back along the wooden path to comfort and order.
We had planned to visit the World Heritage Museum before returning to the ship via shuttle bus and tender, but time was not on our side. We managed to climb the roof of this quirky building and walk its length before checking the ‘tender timetable’ to discover that we had just half an hour to catch the last regular boat to the ship. Fortunately, a bus appeared in the nick of time to whisk us to the port and grab a seat on that last vessel.
Instead of the evening show, Sue chose to watch the film ‘West Side Story’ and I opted to take advantage of the ‘midnight sun’ and sit on the deck at the stern of the ship and marvel at the changing hues and shapes of the glacier as the sun snailed its way across the heavens.
Luckily, we will be staying in the port/city of Ilulissat for one more day. Please make it a sunny one.