Ililussat and the Disko Bay Cruise

View from my room in Ililussat

So Monday morning was supposed to be when I headed out for a boat tour around Disko Bay.  Unfortunately, it was quite windy and the trip was postponed to Tuesday.  That meant my hike scheduled for Tuesday would now be Wednesday with the boat tour to see the whales moved to Wednesday evening.  Oh well.  In Greenland you have to be VERY flexible as you are always at the whim of the weather.

Zion Church in Ilulissat
Sod house

So with Monday wide open, I ended up wandering around the little town and taking in some of the sites including the former home of Knud Rasmussen, an explorer from Ilulissat who is the first European to cross the Northwest Passage by dog sled, the local Zion Church, which sits on some prime real estate, and an original sod house used by the locals up until the early 20th century when they would travel from place to place to hunt, fish and trap.  I even climbed up to one of the highest points in the town to take in the view and snap a few pictures.

Fortunately, the weather was still good although the wind was bringing in the clouds and the forecast fort the rest of the week was not good.  Rain and cold weather.  Ugh.  Anyway, while the weather was good, I ended up sitting on my deck and enjoying the view, had an early dinner and called it good.

Our boat

On Tuesday, I geared up for my boat trip around Disko Bay and while it wasn’t cold … yet … the rains has arrived making it feel colder than it actually was.  I arrived at the tour company’s office at 8:45, met our guide/boat driver, Jacob, and 6 of us were outfitted with wet suits (YAY) and a life vest and by 9:00 we had set off down the hill to the harbour and our trip around Disko Bay to the little fishing village of Oqaatsut where we would go on a short hike and have lunch in the small little restaurant abutting the dock.

More icebergs

Now the first half hour of the the trip was through the Kangia ice field I had come through on Sunday and was this ever different from my first experience.  While the ice was the same, it looked vastly different with no sun, and the reflections on the water were nonexistent.  In addition, we were much closer to the ice field and the making it feel much colder.  Nevertheless, the trip was no less breathtaking.

Once out of the main portion of the ice field, we took a right and headed up the coast in the rain keeping an eye out for humpback whales and seals (still nada).  And while we still passed large icebergs on the trip north, there were far fewer to see.  Now at one point, I heard this huge booming noise and extended rumble, which could have been mistaken for thunder, but in fact, it was more ice calving from the nearby Kangia glacier.  It was LOUD!

Fish for whales

We reached Oqaatsut around 10:30 and after docking we spotted large schools of fish by the shore.  Turns out these fish are the mainstay of the whales in the area and as a result, it is pretty common to see whales near the shore.  Unfortunately, no luck for us so far.

Anyway, once off the boat we walked into a cabin to take off our very wet wet suits and life jacket before setting off on a hike around the village.   And the first thing I noticed was the constant sound of dogs howling.  Yep.  Sled dogs were the main mode of transportation in this village and everyone had dogs.  I wanted to immediately run over and take a look at some of the dogs, but first up was a hike up a small hill to the cemetery.

Now every little village I have been in so far has a cemetery and they have all been constructed near the water.  Our guide told us that it has to do with the beliefs of of the Inuit that their sprit must stay close to water.  Makes sense when a lot of your food is from the water.

Inuit art
Sled dogs
Sled dogs
Sled dogs
Sled dog
Momma sled dog and pup

Anyway, we reversed course and walked towards the little settlement crossing over very slippery rocks (I slipped once, but I wasn’t the only one) and across the grassy tundra.  And no … not a tree in sight.

Once we reached the area where most of the houses were located, I spotted yet another home decorated with Inuit art and managed to snap a picture before my attention turned to … puppies.  Yep.  The sled dogs had little pups with them and damn they were cute.  And unlike the adult dogs, which were chained up, the little ones were free to roam around.  Now most of the pups would start towards us (being watched VERY carefully by momma) before they became skittish and high tailed it back to the safety of a parent.

We spent some time at three different locations where the sled dogs were located before moving on to the school and a water pump.  Some of the homes are not connected to the water system so there is a local pump where water can be drawn.  The water is actually sea water that is processed through a desalinization plant before becoming clean drinking water and having drank the water a lunch, I can tell you it is some of the best tasting, cold water I have ever had.

Water pump

And one other bit of info we learned.  There is no sewer system so the villagers bag their “waste” and it is picked up every morning just like garbage.  In fact, while we were there, I spotted a guy picking up black garbages bags and tossing them into a wagon behind an ATV.  Turns out this is the “poop” guy.

We ended the tour of the village by stopping by the fish plant where the locals bring their catch, sell it, have it processed and then is loaded weekly onto a ship which then transports the catch to overseas markets.

Drying fish
In Oqaatsut
Greenland lunch

As we wandered back to the dock, we passed the local community building, which included a workout room and meeting area as well as a children’s play area as well as some more puppies before reaching the restaurant at the dock.

Now lunch was the Greenland Special: smoked salmon, whale, musk ox, reindeer and shrimp with crow berries (a local berry you find in Greenland and Iceland about the size of a pea, purple in colour and YUMMY) as well as some crowberry jam (which I learned you put on the musk ox and the reindeer and eat with bread) and a mayonnaise to be eaten with the salmon.  And I have to tell you, the meal was fabulous.  None of the meats were salty or gamey.  Each had a unique flavour.  Just super good food.

Anyway, after lunch we suited back up and headed out to see if we could find a whale.  Unfortunately, we immediately found a fin whale … dead.  It appeared that the locals had killed the whale and left the carcass in the water to be “recycled”.  The smell was dreadful.  Fortunately, we got out of there quick.

Black legged seagulls
Black legged seagulls with nest

We meandered around the area in the rain, which had picked back up again, periodically stopping the boat and looking for any sign (usually a spurt of air and water) but nothing.  We ended up reaching the end of this little bay were there were two gorgeous waterfalls and a wall of nesting black legged seagulls.  Birds were everywhere, flying back and forth to nests in progress, often with grass in their beaks.  There were also completed nests were we spotted one baby poking its head out and other nests where momma was just sitting waiting for the arrival.  It was absolutely fascinating and if it hadn’t been raining, I would have tried to take a video, but did manage a couple pictures after wiping my lense more than once.

By now, it was time to head back and we soon found ourselves in the ice field once again, but this time … success.  We spotted two seals swimming around to the left side of the boat.  Unfortunately, by the time I pulled my camera from out under my layers of clothing and wet suit, the little guys were gone.  Damn rain!

We ended up passing by some amazing ice formations and a huge area where the sea ice was all around us causing us to slow down to a crawl.  As we slowing moved over the ice, we kept hearing loud thumps as the ice collided with the boat.  Eventually we were clear of the huge pool of ice and were once again moving at regular speed towards the harbor.  By 4:00 I was back at the hotel and resting before my evening Icefijord cruise.

Now around 5:00 the fog rolled into the bay and I figured my trip to the Icefijord was going to be cancelled, but surprise.  Around 7:30, just as quickly as the fog came in, it was gone.  So at 8:30 I headed to the meeting point and found it was just me and one other gal who were going on the trip.  And it turned out to be a fantastic night.

On the boat

Once on the boat, we bopped along through small chunks of ice and periodically hearing the crunching noise every time the boat went over the “invisible ice” (clear ice that is difficult to see).  Around 9:30, little rays of sunshine started to peak through the gray sky and by the time we were in the middle of the giant ice monsters, it was actually quite pleasant.

Top and bottom of iceberg

And as we moved amongst the icebergs, we would periodically hear the sound of cracking ice, but did not actually see any calving (icebergs shedding ice).  We also had to stay far at least three boat lengths away from the giant icebergs as any form of calving would cause massive waves potentially upending our boat.

Huge iceberg in the Icefijord
Leaving the Icefijord

Now as we puttered along through the icefield, each turn of the boat seemed to reveal a “sculpture” even more beautiful and unique than the last.  And with just a bit of sunshine peaking through the clouds, the colours were simply amazing.  In some icebergs the blue colour was particularly intense and this is from melting ice on the inside of the iceberg causing streams of water to run through the interior.  In others, the shadows and reflections of the light made for incredible sights.

But what was truly most remarkable about the trip was the size of the icebergs with some many stories high.  The proximity to the icebergs accentuated the size and left me quite speechless.  (I know shocking that I was speechless.). I guess it was one thing to see these icebergs from a distance on the ferry or from a distance on shore, but it was something totally different to be within 100 feet of these amazing white sculptures.

Around 10:30 we stopped in the middle of a particularly large icefield and had a hot black current drink with cookies (black current syrup is very popular here) and just took in the scenery.  And Just before 11:00 p.m. with the sun still peaking through the clouds, we headed back to shore.  What an amazing trip!

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

2 thoughts on “Ililussat and the Disko Bay Cruise”

    1. The ferry starts out on Wednesdays from Qaqortoq (South Greenland) with stops in Narsaq and then stops in Arsuk, Paamiut & Qeqertarsuatsiaat on Thursday, Nuuk on Friday, Maniitsoq and Sisimiut on Saturday and finally Aasiaat and Ilulissat on Sunday. It then reverses course. The stops in most towns were a half hour to an hour. The stop in Nuuk was an all day stop and the stop in Sisimiut was 2 hours. The ferry holds 238 people and most on board were locals going from town to town. There were about 30 other tourists on board. I travel by myself. It was an incredible experience.

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