Ilulisat: Icefjord, the grey gold and whales!

A Greenland Story Blog
Jamie Young
Thu 11 Jul 2019 22:55



ILULISAT June 29th to July 2nd                                                                      Photo credit: Vincent Monahan

Finally getting a chance to write a bit as we sail from Disko bay back down to Nuuk. On June 29th we sailed from Aasiaat (Egedeminde) to Ilulisat (Jacobshaven), just 50nm or so. We had such an incredible time here, for a few reasons. Famous for its icefjord, a UNESCO world heritage site, and for being the tourist capital of Greenland.



Figure 1 Aerial shot of Ilulisat Icefjord


As we got sight of land on our way to Ilulisat, on a beautifully sunny day with flat calm seas, the band of sea ice on the horizon looked fairly impervious, however, getting closer we could weave our way through the icebergs and brash ice. Very cool conditions for filming on the way as we sailed passed every type of ice berg. Arriving into the harbour we had our usual celebration of whiskey on the rocks, iceberg rocks that is! Still getting a good kick out of having such old ice in our drinks.

Previously in Aasiaat, as I was jogging down the road one day when I met two Danish workers Hendrik and Kenny, they were contracted in to instal solar panels and to upgrade the local generator station. These guys were so friendly and helpful opening their doors and giving us a tour of the facilities. Many of the villages here get their power from huge diesel generators that constantly run to provide all of their energy needs, including heating the over-ground piping which you see running along the ground in every village. However, many towns take advantage of hydro-electricity and the country does have grander plans to reach full renewable by 2030.

Hendrik and Kenny connected us with their boss Soron who lives in Ilulisat with his family, he runs a construction company and had a great oversight of infrastructure plans. For our first morning in Ilulisat Soron was there to give us a driven tour of the town in his jeep so we could get the lay of the land so we could hit ground running. They breed a big percentage of the pack dogs here and from a high view point we could see dogs scattered all over the barren landscape behind the town. Their howling is a constant soundtrack running in the background


Figure 2 Apartment blocks with sled dogs kept on the rocks out the back. During the colder Winter months this is the start of the busy sled track that leads inland




Here saw the most structured tourism with businesses catering for the ‘grey gold’ as they’re referred to by the locals, i.e. elderly Danish (mainly) on tours. With plans to build an international airport this town will see tourism increasing greatly in the future no doubt. The tourists here are mainly pensioners on tours which tend to be expensive. There was a workshop selling all sorts of pricey trinkets made from bone and teeth of beluga, narwhal, reindeer and walrus, the grey gold snatching everything up fast



The true highlight of our stay here was tracking humpback whales in the icefjord. This was an absolutely incredible experience that none of us will ever forget. Using the Ciaran’s rib, ex-British Antarctic survey, was an absolute god-send and allowed us to get some amazing footage. Between our big RED cam, lenses, drone, DSLR, flares …people …. and maybe some dive gear it’s safe to say we needed a decent amount of space and a stable boat. We changed up our clocks and went searching during the late evenings and night time. This gave us incredible light as the sun remained just above the horizon giving us 4/5 hours of golden hour to film the whales and we had the whole place to ourselves as no tours run at night. It’s still bright 24 hours a day here.


clip_image010clip_image012Figure 5 Our transport through the ice each day. Ciaran at the helm, a luxury to have our own way for exploring the icefjord




Figure 6 Menno and Pauline overlooking the icefjord







Figure 8 Humpback whale off Ilulisat during the everlasting golden hour.

The Ilulisat glacier gives birth to a huge number of the world’s icebergs. The glacier is has now receded 60km up the fjord but the bigger bergs ground at the mouth as it enters the sea and block the rest of the ice behind. You can feel and hear the pressure that builds up behind, constant cracking, creaking and groaning as one berg moves past another. As we were making our way through the channels that began to open up each day thunderous crashes from calving ice gives you a stark reminder why you don’t go near their face, stay at least 3 times their height away at a minimum is the general rule.

The evening when the photo above was taken it was serenely still, the silence broken only by whales resurfacing to blow chimneys high into the air. You really start to understand their patterns of movement; we would paddle in from of their path before they made deep dive and often times they would appear within touching distance but they always gently dipped below our boat.


Drones do not like the conditions up here! Between the cold and magnetic interference, you have to be very cautious. The first day we filmed here I lost my drone after a day of shooting, it went haywire and now lies at the bottom of a very deep fjord … heart breaking stuff at the time. However, unbelievably there was a shop here that sells the exact same drone! After a few more amazing days we had what we needed again.


Figure 10 Screenshot from aerial footage from humpback whales

For this shot above my heart was in my mouth, I was sitting on a little rock island and the battery was getting dangerously low. This was the perfect shot we were after, it was my last battery and our last day here. After losing one drone I was never more relieved to have gotten it back on solid ground.


Figure 11 Ciaran test day diving

Ciaran tested out the water with a quick dive on our second last day here. We were just outside of the ice fjord. In the middle photo above, you can see the split that appeared in the middle of the icebergs, the flow of water coming out of this was huge with strong currents and eddies everywhere. Due to the flow of freshwater coming from the melting bergs there was a halocline effect which reduced visibility but a good spot for a test dive none the less!



Other than that the Blue Water café was the best food we’ve had out since we’ve been here, delicious homemade cakes, great coffee and great sandwiches. If eating out is has usually been stewed meat dishes and/or deep fried things so nice to get something different!

All-round Ilulisat was an incredible experience and I can’t wait to return someday.

Until the next time,