Judah Sarpinak steadied himself on the floor of the boat, less than 15 feet from an enormous 30-foot bowhead whale.
At such close range with the powerful animal, one mistake by Sarpinak and his uncle Andy Attagutalukutuk and they’d be tossed into the Arctic Ocean. But Sarpinak had supreme confidence in Attagutalukutuk’s ability to manoeuvre the boat.
“He was the best,” said Sarpinak. “If it was not for him, we would not get that close.”
Sarpinak plunged his harpoon into the mighty whale.
“Yeah, it was awesome… quite scared but exciting,” he said of the memorable moment.
That harpoon was followed by several others from more Iglulik hunters who were quickly on the scene with their outboard motors buzzing.
The beast was gradually vanquished. It took seven boats to tow the bowhead back to Iglulik. The 50-km journey took several hours with the bulky mammal creating drag in the water.
Iglulik hunters last landed a bowhead three years ago. That one measured 27 feet.
As the boats returned, community members dotted the coastline despite it being close to 3 a.m. More and more residents made their way to the beach. They grabbed a tow rope and dozens of them helped pull the whale onto the shore.
Then, over the next 12 hours, people took turns stripping away maktaaq to take home.
“There’s lots of meat over there,” said Francis Piugattuk, a member of the bowhead hunt committee.
Boiling the meat is the most common way to eat it, although some prefer it raw while others dry it.
Piuggatak said there are other options to prepare the meat, commonly used in Alaska, but some traditions in Nunavut were lost with the disruption of cultural practices.
“Our recent ancestors were basically banned from harvesting bowhead whales so there was no bowhead hunting for a while,” Piugattuk said. “So finally we are relearning.”
The meat and blubber proved to be a timely treat for the elders gathering Iglulik hosted over the past week.
“We were hoping the hunters would catch (a whale) while we have elders from Nunavik – northern Quebec – and Nunavut. They’re visiting here for a week,” Mayor Celestino Uyarak said on Aug. 13. “We shared it with our elder visitors. It’s been good the last few days… perfect timing.”
Uyarak sampled the whale himself. He prefers to eat the blubber.
“Of course I have tried it. It’s really good,” he said.