It was something we were dead set against before traveling to Greenland. We heard the whaling debates on the news here in Canada. The Inuit had fought for the right to continue hunting whales while the rest of us sat back in our cozy homes eating fast food, judging their right to continue their ‘tradition.’ That’s how we understood it. Why should they continue an ancient tradition in the modern world when there are alternatives to eating whales? And then we visited Greenland.
Whale is a Staple food in Greenland
We’ve said many times that travel is the best education. You can read all the books and articles you want, but until you experience something firsthand, you can’t truly understand it.
Living in the Arctic is difficult. It would be impossible for the rest of us without the help of modern living, but the Aboriginal Peoples of the far North have adapted and thrived on living in extreme conditions. We all assume that they can just go to the supermarket like the rest of us to buy their meats and cheeses or they can grow tomatoes and corn in gardens to replace hunting whales. That is simply not true.
Flying in food is expensive. Greenland relies on all their imports from Denmark.
Why People Eat Whale in Greenland
Ships with food come into the Capital City of Nuuk and some go to Sisimuit, but distribution is not easy. Greenland is also very difficult to travel around. None of the country’s communities are connected to each other. There are no roads leading in and out of villages. There is a polar Icecap in the way, so the only way to get around is by ship or flight.
It’s not like there are regular flights to Greenland bringing in Chiquita bananas and Florida oranges to everyone. Ports are few and far between and if you live outside the capital or main villages, you must rely on yourself.
Growing anything on the Arctic Tundra is nearly impossible. They live above the tree line and nothing but moss and arctic shrubs can survive in such extreme conditions. While we eat chicken and beef, their staples are whale, seal, and reindeer.
Whale Hunting History
The Inuit have hunted whales for centuries. They have found a balance in the ecosystem. Unlike the white man that hunted whales to near extinction for the purpose of wealth and oil; Greenlanders and indigenous communities hunt for food, nutrients, and survival. It can be difficult to comprehend.
Unlike our trip to Antarctica where whales were curious and welcoming because they have nothing to fear, whales in the Arctic fear man and avoid ships. They are hunted regularly here and even spotting seals up here is difficult. Everything is fair game for hunting.
Whales have a long memory
The Bowhead whale can live up to 200 years and it has a strong memory. You can bet that they have taught their offspring to steer clear of man and ships. So when a ship comes anywhere near a pod of whales, their first instinct is to dive.
As tourists, we all go to these destinations to spot whale whale.
We revere them and know how intelligent and special they are. How can we condone killing whales? But when I stop to think of it, why do we condone eating any mammal?
Pigs here in Canada suffer daily on their way to the slaughterhouse. They are raised in inhumane conditions and are packed into meat trucks before being abused with cattle prods forcing them up a ramp to their deaths.
Dave was filming once beside the pig abattoir in Toronto and couldn’t handle the screams coming from the truck. Hundreds are killed each day and don’t even have a quality of life leading up to their death. And yet, everyone in our society goes on and on about how they can’t live without bacon.
Strict Rules in Greenland for Hunting Whale
Greenlanders kill about 175 whales per year. This includes the Minke Whale that has the highest population of whales at 200,000. But it also includes the Narwhal that is endangered with approximately 20,000-50,000 remaining.
A Narwhal is one of the most elusive whales in the world.
Narwhals are known as the Unicorn of the Sea because of their single long tusk. We are told that the Inuit are only allowed to hunt for Narwhal by kayak, but as I dig deeper into my research, I see that in some parts of Greenland and Northern Canada, high-speed boats are used.
We do question, “why are they allowed to hunt an endangered animal at all. Can’t they stick to hunting the whales that are less endangered?”
Whales offer Vitamin C to Isolated Communities
According to our guides, Narwhal offers important nutrients like vitamin C. However, I don’t see why other whale skins don’t supply vitamin C. Caribou Liver, Kelp and Seal Brain also supply vitamin C, so maybe Narwhal hunting should be banned.
Should they ban Narwhal Hunting to Inuit
As one person stated on our expedition, “I can understand tradition and culture, but I can’t condone contributing to the extinction of a species when there are other alternatives.”
However, when Inuit hunt whales, they kill one. They use it to feed their families for an entire season. If they catch a Bowhead, this can feed their family for a year. They didn’t contribute to the near extinction of whales. Our ancestors did. Taking a few a year won’t wipe out a population of 20,000.
It’s the countries like Norway and Japan that take hundreds more each year who should have to stop whaling. It isn’t essential to Japan’s survival. If the Inuit are responsible people and don’t overfish, why shouldn’t they be allowed to consume Narwhal? The Greenland People only have a few things that supply Vitamin C. They should be allowed to get their nutrients it any way they can.
Would You Eat Whale?
At one of our stops in the Town of Sisimiut, we had the opportunity to taste the local cuisine. One of the best ways to delve into a culture is to try their food. At least that’s what we always say. When their cuisine is in line with our beliefs it’s easy to write about it and say, “Try the local cuisine, it’s the best part of travel.”
People won’t judge you if you try Ox Tail or Pigs Feet. But how will we feel about tasting Seal Soup or Whale Skin. What will our friends, family, and peers think. What will people think of us?
On the other hand, what is the difference between trying lamb, alpaca, guinea pig or any other cute animal that people like? We’ve tried eating cute animals in other countries like kangaroo and ostrich. While we don’t make a point of eating things like this on a regular basis and stick to a mostly vegetarian diet, we have always been open to giving things a try when visiting other cultures.
So why should Greenland be any different? What’s your take?
A local restaurant in the town of Sisimiut set up a tasting buffet for us at the local museum. They called it the Taste of Greenland and we had the opportunity to try Minke Whale, Narwhal Seal Blubber, Dried Cod and Shrimp.We decided not to try the Narwhal, since it is endangered but had a taste of everything else.
It was a beautiful display of food but completely strange and controversial. It looked just like a buffet would be displayed in Canada or Europe containing more traditional meats. But it certainly wasn’t.
When you go to Sisimiut, you too can try local cuisine at the Café Norður – meaning North, at the Hotel Sisimiut and at the Restaurant Nasaasaaq.
So, here is the question. If you went to Greenland would you try whale? Do you try the local cuisine at other countries you travel to?
For more adventures in eating with Dave and Deb check out…
- Icelandic Food: 15 Traditional Dishes to Try in Iceland
- Moroccan Food a Feast for the Senses
- Bathing and Bubbly at the Top of the World
- Introducing Greenland
Quark Expeditions invited us to experience their Greenland Explorer Tour. All commentary is our own and we’ll be giving you an honest view of what it’s like to take a Quark Cruise.
Whale tail Photo Credit: Quark Expedition Staff Dr. Chris.