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Inuit hunters in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, stand atop a 17-metre whale they harvested in August 2009. A similar hunt will take place next summer in Iqaluit, the territorial capital city. ((Submitted by Sally and Tagak Curley))

Iqaluit will host one of Nunavut's prized bowhead whale hunts next summer, giving Inuit hunters there a rare chance to harvest one of the giants of the sea.

Next summer will mark the first time in recent history that Iqaluit hunters will get to harvest one of the massive marine mammals, which can feed hundreds of Inuit in the area with meat and muktaaq.

"It's very important. It's been tradition for a long time. I always wanted to go bowhead whale hunt, if I got a chance," said longtime Iqaluit hunter Solomon Awa, who has never hunted a mighty bowhead.

While whaling has long been a revered tradition in Inuit culture, which emphasizes the ability to live off the land, the bowhead whale was completely off-limits to hunting for decades. As a result, many modern Inuit in Nunavut have not had a chance to go after the large whales.

Licence required

But as the whale's numbers started to rebound in the mid-1990s, hunters have been slowly getting their chance. Today, the bowhead whale remains the only animal for which Inuit communities need a licence to hunt.

Nunavut's Inuit land-claims organization, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., has fought hard to open up the harvest.

The group convinced the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board to recommend raising the annual quota from two to three whales a year. That recommendation was approved by federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea last year.

"It's very important for younger people to learn. I mean, they have enough distractions already in today's modern world," said Gabriel Nirlungayuk, Nunavut Tunngavik's wildlife director.

"There's nothing like it to go out on the land, and coming home with dinner."

So every year, three Nunavut communities are awarded licences to hunt one bowhead whale each. This year, hunts took place in Kugaaruk, Pond Inlet and Repulse Bay, with whalers in the latter two communities having successful hunts.

No guarantees

While hunters like Awa say they are excited with the opportunity, they are quick to note there is no guarantee that they will actually take home a whale.

"Yes, it's going to be really fun having a bowhead whale hunt here in Iqaluit; [it is] like we're given a licence [for] opportunity. The question is, are we going to be successful?" Awa said.

"It's all up to the environment. It's not up to us. That's how we always look at it."

The Amarok Hunters and Trappers Organization in Iqaluit, which is organizing next summer's hunt, has not yet set an exact date.

Vice-chairman David Alexander said he expects a lot of hunters will want to be in the whaling crew that will go out onto the water and pursue a bowhead.

"It won't be an easy task as to who will be able to … to be out on this hunt. Hopefully we'll be able to do the right selection process to get the right people," Alexander said.

Hunting, butchering work

Awa said he hopes to be part of the whaling crew, but he added that he'll be happy doing whatever he can.

"The hunting part is fun, but the butchering part is also a lot of work," he said.

While whale hunting is tied to the Inuit people's past, the technology hunters use today is modern — a grenade is speared into the giant animal in order to avoid a drawn-out death, Nirlungayuk said.

"You try and aim it for either the brain or the heart or the lungs or both. There's a gap, about a five- to six-second gap, and then it explodes," Nirlungayuk said.

Alexander said the chance to hunt a bowhead whale will make up for years in which the beluga whale harvest proved to be disappointing.

He added that the hunt will give Inuit hunters a chance to pass on traditional knowledge to young people, while hopefully feeding a lot of people.