2010 - Greenland

August 2010 -aboard mv Discovery

with some notes incorporated from  Cruise Talks by David Baskott


Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world and the largest of the world’s islands. 
It is 10 times the size of Great Britain and the size of the Economic Union.

The total population of Greenland is just 56,000 and 14,000 live in the capital, Nuuk.  Most people live along the coastline.

There is a tremendous list of mineral ores that are found in Greenland and these are increasingly being exploited.

Other islands in order of size are:

2nd  Papua New Guinea, 3rd  Borneo, 4th  Madagascar, 5th  Baffin Island, 6th  Sumatra
(Britain is the 9th largest island in the world).

Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark.  Greenland has been given an enormous loan by Denmark – the equivalent of every Greenlander being given $11,000 – this is the only way that the people who live in Greenland can actually cope. 

Denmark still looks after Greenland’s foreign affairs and defence although Greenland has autonomy over its financial affairs.

Greenland is mountainous on its eastern side and towards the south.  There are also mountains towards the north.   Greenland’s centre is way below sea level because of the weight of the ice.  It is estimated that the sea level throughout the world would rise by some 23 feet if Greenland’s ice should melt.

There are 2 or 3 places in Greenland where there is a break in the mountains and the icebergs can float down – one being Ilulissat.

80% of Greenland’s population is Inuit and about 10% is Danish – these largely being civil servants: teachers, doctors, nurses etc.  The remainder are a mixture of other foreign nationals.

A large percentage of the Inuit are unemployed since the demise of the coal mines further north.  Although they get a Government subsidy, they spend much of this on alcohol. The site of drunken indigenous people is all too common.

There is a Cultural Centre in Nuuk opened in 1997 where concerts etc take place. 

Being so isolated, much has to be imported into Greenland – tour guides, diesel for buses, petrol for cars, etc etc – therefore everything is very expensive.

Greenland was only connected to the internet last year.  There is a large transatlantic optic cable stretching from Canada.  Power is provided by hydro-electric power.  Greenland have their own fleet of aircraft – many of which are small aircraft and helicopters. There is a regular Government run ferry service.

Most of the prawns on sale in Britain come from Greenland. They eat seal, whale and various varieties of fish.

Prins Christiansund Monday 9th August

It wasn’t known until almost the last moment as to whether we would be able to get through the narrow entrance to the sund.  Indeed we heard that another liner that had got through, had encountered too much ice when in the fjord system and had to turn back.  We were extremely fortunate however and the weather was very much in our favour.  We were therefore able to be on the top deck of the Discovery and to spend much time photographing the amazing geological features that we passed by. Indeed, we currently have more than 100 photographs which we will have to whittle down somewhat.  This was our first close-up view of Greenland and the first of four Greenlandic locations that our journey to this largest island in the world takes in.  

Nuuk – Tuesday 10th August

We were able to dock alongside in the new port and shuttle buses took independent passengers into town – although Brian and Ann walked the mile there and back!

We had pre-booked a trip entitled “Panoramic Nuuk” which should have departed at 12.45 p.m.  However, we arrived late into Nuuk because of a Russian ship occupying our designated space and our tour was re-scheduled for 2.00 p.m. – in the event, the tour company only sent 2 buses instead of 3 and it was nearly 3.45 p.m. before we departed.

Nuuk has a population of around 15,000.  We understand that the Danish Government moved many indigenous people (Inuit) into the cities/towns as this made the provision of services easier.  Certainly there were many rows of blocks of flats which dated from the 70s and 80s and looked very grim and prison-like.  Our guide said that there are many social problems arising from this.  Some of the buildings had bright colours to cheer up a fairly grey landscape.  Much of the land comprises exposed rock and houses seem to be built directly onto it.

There are some older buildings also and our drive-by tour showed us these clustered around the harbour.  On the ridge above are the great blocks of flats.  Apparently, citizens cannot own the ground but are it is leased to them by the government.  By far the majority of the buildings are government or company flats.

The water pipes run over the ground but are sheathed in electric cables providing heating to stop them freezing.  Our Austrian guide said that in the winter the temperature dips to minus 28 degrees centigrade with the chill factor lowering this to minus 40.  Snow falls in early October and lies until late May.  The residents wear spikes on their shoes to get around.

We were told that owning a boat is more important than owning a car (there are no roads out of Nuuk).  Sometimes two or three families share a boat.  Interestingly, the very low sea temperatures meant that traditionally very few people knew how to swim.  However a smart new swimming pool erected in 2003 is changing this.  Called “the Wave”, because of the shape of its roof, we went in briefly to visit – there being few other sites in Nuuk for the tourist to see.

Children start school at the age of 6 and education is free.  There are 300 students at the small University of Greenland in Nuuk but some subjects, such as law, must be studied in Denmark.

The National Museum closed before we reached it and we saw the small Nuuk Cathedral (Evangelical Lutheran) but this was also shut. The large postbox for letters to Father Christmas is on the harbour front.

Our general impression is that the site of Nuuk is beautiful but the town itself is depressing.  With summer temperatures between 0 and 10 degrees, we were fortunate that it was said to be 11 degrees – although pouring with rain.

The mountain in the background of Nuuk appears on the city’s coat of arms.


Ilulissat – Thursday 12th August

Having crossed the Arctic Circle at 10.45 a.m. yesterday morning, we continued north for more than another twenty hours.  We neared Ilulissat and then inched our way towards its port in thick fog.  One hour after we should have arrived there we were still half a mile outside the harbour and, despite having a ticket for the first tender; it seemed increasingly unlikely that we would be able to leave the ship.

The day wore on and still the fog persisted.  It did create a very rare effect for us though and everyone rushed out to capture this for posterity.  The ship itself created a great arch-like reflection almost like a rainbow whilst each passenger leaning over the side could see his or her own “halo”(called a “brockenspectre” in the water below.

Fishing and tourism are very important to the people of Ilulissat.  The bulk of the fish they catch is halibut.

There are many huskies in the town – indeed they outnumber the human population by almost two to one. There are just over 4,000 people and 8,000 huskies in Ilulissat. Huskies are descended from the Arctic Wolf and the puppies run around free until they are about six months old.  We had been looking forward to seeing the huskies – although we had been warned to keep well clear of them as they can be extremely aggressive.  In the event, it was unsafe to progress into the harbour and we were unable to go ashore.  We never saw the dogs, nor the kayak factory or any of the other things within Ilulissat.

“Ilulissat” means “the icebergs” and we had booked a boat trip down the ice fjord to get close to them in this World Heritage Site.  The boat trip never materialised however, late in the afternoon, the fog suddenly lifted and the Captain announced that he was going to take Discovery as close to some of the great bergs – many the size of Wembley Stadium – as he could.  They are up to 100 metres high. It was a remarkable sight – with another ship obliging coming into view to give some idea of the perspective.

Six sevenths of an iceberg is typically below sea level – but by the time it has travelled down the fjord, it could well be nine tenths below sea level.  Bergs turn over when they bump into each other – they can create waves 30 feet high.  The jagged icy peaks are the original top; the smooth glassy surface is the original base. Sometimes the floating bergs get down as far as a line of latitude level with New York.

Small lumps of ice are called “growlers”.  The land is 3.5 thousand million years old in this area and the ice in the icebergs is reckoned to have fallen as snow 110,000 years ago!


Qaqortoq – Saturday 14th August

On the voyage to Qaqortoq many whales were sighted on both sides of the ship – however we were in a lecture to which the news was not broadcast so we did not ourselves go up to the top deck and see them.  Also we learned that the bumps we had experienced in the night and changes in direction etc. had been due to us travelling through a large amount of broken ice for 25 miles.  We have a copy of the ship’s radar scan showing the ice field.

“Qaqortoq” means “white” (because of the icebergs) and has a population of 3,000.  It is well known for the manufacture of clothing made of seal skin. It is home to the oldest fountain in Greenland which has three dolphins on the top and the representation of spouting whales.  There is a very small cathedral in the heart of Qaqortoq.

We needed to be tendered in to Qaqortoq which is a very pretty colourful place.  The houses are reminiscent of those we saw in Nuuk but without the large blocks of flats.  They are built directly onto the rock with post supports being drilled into the rock.  The houses are decorated in a multitude of different colours. 

We visited the home of a 14 year old girl and her mother.  The girl is at school local but her sisters are at school in Nuuk and at University in Denmark.  She herself will go to boarding school in Denmark next year.  The father runs two taxis.

The family were obviously well-to-do and the house had large rooms attractively furnished with a Scandinavian influence.  As part of the pre-arranged visit, the girl dressed in traditional costume which is worn for weddings, christenings, funerals etc.  The bridegroom wears a simple white shirt with long black boots.  The women’s costume is beaded and highly decorated.  The white boots are made of seal skin and very warm. 

The mother came originally from Ilulissat.  However, travel in Greenland – there being no roads connecting settlements so long distances have to be travelled by sea or by air.  The daughter had not herself been to Nuuk.

Children learn Danish from Grade 3 and English from Grade 7.  The girl spoke incredibly good English but said that she had picked up much – not just from school – but from watching “movies”.  The family’s large flat screen television receives two channels, one being BBC!

We chatted whilst enjoying small cakes made by the mother.  These included blueberry muffins with blueberries that she had picked near the lake a few days earlier.  The house had lovely views in two directions but one of these was partially blocked by a large house under construction.  Apparently the father had consented to this being built – but it was much larger than they had anticipated and the mother feared the loss of the winter sun.  The new build is apparently owned by a local millionaire and appears in a number of our photographs.

After we left the house of our hosts, we went back to the road the way we had come – across the bare rock covered with scrubby grass.  The family have made a small fountain but other than that the surroundings are entirely natural with no division between one person’s land and that of another.

We looked down on the helicopter port which is down by the harbour.

We then walked around the small community visiting the very small cathedral and also the lake where children were bathing in wetsuits.  We were surprised at how warm the temperature was (apparently 17 degrees when we were there) and coats were actually not necessary.

The community at Qaqortoq does not farm crops but it does farm the sea – they harvest some 70,000 seals each year out of the millions on Greenland.

There is not much economy in Greenland – they don’t produce that much.  They depend heavily on Denmark and on the culling of seals.  They eat the meat and use the skins for clothing.

We found this a much more attractive community than Nuuk and it seemed quite idyllic at the time we visited.  No doubt it is not quite the same proposition during the long hard winter.  Everyone seemed very friendly – with many “hellos” and folk being willing to stop and be photographed.

After leaving Qaqortok, we began our three day sail back towards the British Isles and our visit to the Orkneys.