A pod of magnificent bowhead whales never fails to attract attention. To see them feeding along the sea surface in their natural Arctic habitat, hearing their deep chorus of groans as they migrate through cold northern seas, or at the floe’s (icy) edge, never fails to fascinate those fortunate enough to view them breaching the surface to feed or cavort. They are revered by environmentalists, tourism marketers, nature photographers and lovers of wildlife alike. Most people today rightly share the view that bowhead are an endangered species.
Hunted in the past to virtual extinction by the European whalers who plied Arctic waters to chase huge fortunes in the trade of whale oil and baleen in the 18th and 19th centuries, the reappearance of each and every bowhead whale today is a wonderful and precious occasion, one worthy of preservation. And while they are now again regaining some of their numbers in the context of the changing, evermore delicate Arctic eco-system, they are still a species requiring careful renewable resource management and environmental respect.
Bowhead are also highly revered by Inuit, but for entirely different, far more practical reasons. For Inuit the bowhead still represent a precious source of food, essential to their diets. In the community context, their harvest — a successful bowhead hunt — is also an important component to the preservation of their cultural traditions, food source aside.
While all surviving generations of Inuit still eat and enjoy whale meat and muqtuq with the same appreciation, the harvest of this essential Arctic food source holds special meaning for Nunavut elders, many of whom spent most of their lives on the land surviving solely on those nutrients and resources nature was willing (rarely on some occasions) to provide. Their digestive systems and overall health are just not as accustomed to the modern, diverse bounty of the local grocery store. And so it was that August 15, 2011 became a community-wide day to rejoice, to celebrate, to hold a feast in Iqaluit, after the first success – ful arvik hunt in that community in over one hundred years.