Nunavik girl, 18, harpoons 14-metre bowhead whale on first-ever hunt

While many people around the country were casting back on their memories of summer, Jessica Pilurtuut was coming up with a whopper.

Jessica Pilurtuut's dad 'taught me to stay strong, to show the harpoon is stronger' than the whale

Jessica Pilurtuut, 18, was all smiles after harpooning a bowhead whale on Aug. 31. (Submitted by Jessica Pilurtuut)

While many people around the country were casting back on their memories of summer, Jessica Pilurtuut was coming up with a whopper.

A whale, really.

The 18-year-old from Kangiqsujuaq, Que., harpooned a bowhead whale on Aug. 31, on her first ever hunt.

"I kept thinking before I harpooned it, 'I'm not going to be nervous. I'm not going to be shaky. I'm not going to be scared,'" she said.

Pilurtuut stands on the tail of her bowhead whale. (Submitted by Jessica Pilurtuut)

The bowhead measured in at slightly more than 14 metres. Pilurtuut has no idea how much it weighed, just simply stating "it's a big whale."

According to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, the bowhead can grow to 14 to 18 metres (46-59 feet) in length and weighs 75-100 tonnes.

Pilurtuut was part of a team of six from her community, which headed out on the annual hunt three weeks prior to getting the whale.

The one they eventually caught was spotted while the crew was camping on the  Aivirtuuq peninsula. The team members jumped into the boats and headed into the Hudson Strait.

Pilurtuut poses with hunt captain Johnny Arnaituk. (Submitted by Jessica Pilurtuut)

The first boat to see it was Pilurtuut's. They got close enough for her to throw the harpoon but it just bounced off the whale.

"So people encouraged me more and the second one hit," she said.

Eventually the massive mammal was lifted by crane onto a larger boat and brought back to Kangiqsujuaq, where there was a big celebration.

"Lots of people kept hugging me, congratulating me," said Pilurtuut, noting she learned a lot from her dad, who landed a bowhead in 2008 and again in 2009.

Pilurtuut says she only stood on the whale briefly, for the photo, and then quickly climbed back into the boat. She was afraid the whale would shift and send her into the water of the Hudson Strait. (Submitted by Jessica Pilurtuut)

"He taught me to stay strong, to show the harpoon is stronger [than the whale]," she said.

Her whale will provide meat, and particularly muktuk — the traditional Inuit and Chukchi meal of frozen whale skin and blubber — for several months to the community of 800 people.

Its bones will also be used for tools and carving and jewelry, while the baleen plates — used instead of teeth for filtering food out of the ocean — will be hung as decoration and also used in jewelry, Pilurtuut said.

Pilurtuut's souvenir is the harpoon she used. The captain of her boat gave it to her to keep and she now has it proudly displayed in her room.

"It's been awesome and fun," she said, fishing for the right words about the experience. "I want to go again. I really want to.

"I'm still excited."

Pilurtuut smiles as people climb ladders behind her to butcher the bowhead whale she harpooned. (Submitted by Jessica Pilurtuut)

The bowhead was an early whaling target and its population was reduced to such a low number that a moratorium was imposed to protect it in 1966.

It wasn't until 1996 that the first licences were granted again.

Through conservation efforts, the bowhead population has since recovered and is now rated of "least concern" on the list of threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The hunt is monitored with the assistance of co-management partners including the Nunavik Marine Regional Wildlife Board, the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and hunters and trappers organizations.

Photos by Jamie Yaaka, Matthew Arngak and Daniel Jaaka

With files from Madeleine Allakariallak