Greenland introduces itself shyly, shrouded in sea fog. It’s taken 36 hours to cross the Denmark Strait from Reykjavik and it is not yet 6am when Captain Maxim Makarovskiy steers our ship, the Greg Mortimer, away from the open ocean to begin our navigation of Kangertigtivatsiaq Fjord in the country’s remote east. Most of the 86 passengers are asleep. But sleep is out for me because I’ve just seen my first iceberg.
It’s not a blue-white archway begging for a brochure cover, or anything even nudging majestic or grand. In that moment I learn that “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” doesn’t apply to icebergs, because the thing that glides goofily by the starboard balcony looks like the dashed ambitions of a small-town ice sculptor who’s tried to chisel a sleeping dragon. Puffer coat yanked over pyjamas, I go outside to see more ice sculptures show-ponying past, and not in dignified silence, either. They fizz, hiss and pop as if someone has added a scoop of sherbet to the mix.
The fog wears off. By breakfast time, nearly all passengers are outside, locked in awed silence as we cruise the 26-kilometre fjord. An Aurora Expeditions guide, Jeff Nagel, attempts to quantify the magnificence. “That big rock face is 800 to 900 metres tall at different points,” he says over the loudspeaker. “To give you some comparison, El Capitan in Yosemite Valley is a 900-metre face.” But there is no comparison. Not to the rock, nor to Greenland. This is the world’s biggest island and home of the Inuit, a place with scenery that thunders like a bowling ball down the centre of the alley, skittling most you’ve seen elsewhere.
In Kalaallisut, the Greenlandic language, Kangertigtivatsiaq means “the rather large fjord” and Sermersooq (the name of the region) means “place of much ice”. Kalaallisut is a literal language, its diction suited to the commands of puffed-out hunters. The ice we saw earlier was actually a “bergy bit” or “growler”; icebergs, I learn, have height and volume criteria — that is, they must be BIG. Colossal bergs materialise from the remnants of mist now, mimicking landmasses, as if great chunks of Greenland had decided to cede. Aurora’s photographer, Michael Baynes, circles the decks, giving tips that are barely needed because the water is mirroring the views so sharply you could spin a photograph 180 degrees and not know which way is up. “I can’t take a bad shot,” a passenger marvels to his wife.
Later, we take a hot tub on the ship’s top deck. The ice keeps coming and so do the similes.
“A Scottish terrier!”
“A grappling hook!”
“A giant baby crawling up a melting mushroom!”
“A blue Slurpee!”
You might expect more solemnity from these relics of the ice age — some up to 250,000 years old — but no. Icebergs are extroverts that scream to be seen.
You might also think that Arctic ice is in rude health because there’s so much of it. But the Aurora team swiftly gets to work on debunking such myths, delivering a packed program of science lectures. Dr John Kirkwood, a marine biologist who began working in Antarctica in 1980, explains that there are two types of ice: glacial ice and sea ice. Summer tends to be glacier-calving season so there are lots of icebergs (glacial ice) around, but sea ice is a different story. “We’ve lost most of the [Arctic] sea ice in the summers already,” Kirkwood says.
The Arctic is warming much more quickly than the rest of the planet. Kirkwood tells us that while the global average temperature has increased by about 1.2 degrees Celsius in a century, the climate in parts of the Arctic has increased by about five degrees Celsius in around 30 years. Moreover, the ice is melting faster than the most pessimistic models predicted. By 2100 at the latest, he says, it’s estimated that just a patch of ephemeral sea ice will remain. Of the walruses and seals that breed and give birth on it, and their predators, including polar bears, he asks: “What’s going to happen to them?”
Does he leave the question dangling, I wonder, because the answer is grim and we’re trying to have a nice holiday? Or because we already know? The climate crisis isn’t just some future spectre but a truth of our past and present, meaning the question is not “What will happen?” but “How can we slow it down?”.
Aurora’s Greenland odyssey is a two-week U-turn, travelling down the country’s east coast, around its southern tip and up the west coast via the capital, Nuuk (a small city poised for big change as it prepares to open a much-expanded airport in 2024). The finale is Ilulissat Icefjord at the sea mouth of Sermeq Kujalleq glacier. Second only to Antarctica’s Lambert Glacier in speed and activity, the glacier calves about 35 billion tonnes of ice each year, producing icebergs up to one kilometre high that surround the town of Ilulissat, which yelps and howls with sled dogs bred to run, run, run.
Greenland’s many fjords reach out from the inland ice sheet like knobbly witches’ fingers. Roads, where they exist, don’t go far. They can’t. The ice sheet blankets about 80 per cent of the country and is more than three kilometres thick at its highest point. Greenlanders live along the greenish coastal fringes in towns that are a picturesque jumble of multicoloured houses that tumble down the rocky hillsides. The harbours bob with weather-beaten boats, while snowmobiles and dog sleds are parked higgledy-piggledy among flowering purple sianiusat (harebell) and niviarsiaq (dwarf fireweed). Reindeer antlers decorate house awnings and letterboxes or just lie around town looking tough and cool.
With about 56,000 residents, Greenland is the least densely populated country in the world. Geographically, it’s part of North America and its people strongly identify with the Inuit indigenous to Alaska and Canada. But Greenland has a Scandinavian imprint, too, a legacy of the Norwegian priest Hans Egede who came in 1721 and began mass conversion and colonisation. Today, Greenlanders are primarily Lutheran Evangelists and the country is a self-governing entity within the Kingdom of Denmark.
The issue of independence is on perpetual simmer. Our Nuuk guide, Nicholas Anderson, is from a south Greenland family that moved to the capital when he was a baby. He later spent five years in Denmark (a “terrible culture shock”) and has come to see the benefits of Danish citizenship. “We get paid $[US]800 per month to go to high school because the government wants to educate us so much,” he says. And yet. “A lot of Indigenous people are angry about how Egede colonised Greenland and forced them to be Christian and to learn new ways of eating, behaving and talking.”
Today, the economy is fuelled by fish, however the hunting of seals, whales, musk oxen and reindeer still fills bellies in a land hostile to agriculture. In Paamiut, in the country’s south-west, we see a minke whale being brought in. The hunters graciously allow our Zodiacs to come close as it is expertly cut up. That evening, the ship historian, Cécile Manet, gives a talk about traditional whaling. She tells us the meat will feed people for up to a year and, eaten raw, the matak (skin with blubber) is a good source of vitamin C in a country with limited access to fruit and vegetables. Given that we’d also enjoyed a show of humpbacks slapping their flukes that day, the talk is a deft move by Aurora, giving passengers the full picture and staving off judgment.
On the ship, a hopeful checklist of Arctic wildlife is pinned up near the restaurant for passengers to tick off sightings. To this end, in the western city of Sisimiut, 40 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, a passenger asks our local guide, Laura Lennert Jensen, where we might see reindeer. Jensen pauses. Reindeer hunting season has just begun but a butchered bull in a Greenlander’s deep freezer doesn’t quite fit the bill. “Maybe on your way back to the ship?” Jensen says diplomatically. We do indeed see a reindeer at Sisimiut’s harbour; a man hauls its hairy hindquarters off a boat, hoists it over his shoulders and walks it up the jetty. Tick!
We board a draughty bus to “dog town” (as Sisimiut locals call it) where more than 1,000 Greenlandic sled dogs prowl and yowl in the pretty meadows, jangling their long chains and watching us with indifference because we have no food. They look like huskies or Alaskan malamutes but they’re a distinct breed. “You can’t have any other breed of dog here, except the two police dogs that are German shepherds,” Jensen says. I ask if it’s true that the ice is much thinner now, making sledding less safe. “Yes, that is true,” Jensen says. “My parents tell me stories of how they could dog sled on the sea ice in the winter and I could never imagine doing that. There’s not enough ice, if there even is ice.”
The air smells like dog. “This is would be good real estate anywhere else,” says Lillian, a passenger from Florida, gesturing towards the buttery mountaintops, their peaks dipped in sunlight. There are murmurs of agreement from the group, but we’re all in for a surprise because despite the former US president Donald Trump’s threat to buy Greenland in 2019, Jensen tells us, “It’s not possible to own land here.” A few days later, our Kangerlussuaq guide, Hans Jürgen, clarifies: “You can’t buy land but you can get permission to build a house,” he says. “But if you move on, you have to pick it up and take it with you or leave it to someone else.”
Given half a chance our expedition leader, Florence Kuyper, arranges a “wet landing” (a Zodiac disembarkation into nature) with the keen kayakers of the group let loose to paddle. Kuyper loves to be outside and her assumption that we do too is infectious. She radiates warmth and no-nonsense strength, and with her habit of deflecting credit to others, the ship buzzes with positivity.
When Greenland authorities retract permission for us to enter a fjord due to a narwhal survey, Kuyper is unapologetic. “Plan A has already become Plan B,” she says brightly, using the pivot to get us in the expedition spirit, which is all about spontaneity. Her skills are in high demand. According to America’s Cruise Industry News, the global expedition market grew by 450 per cent from 2012 to 2022 and many luxury cruise operators are building new expedition-ready ships.
We have good weather but that’s not always the case on an expedition and it can be difficult for people to accept, Kuyper says. “In our world, we dominate, and in the Arctic we so clearly don’t,” she adds. “Nature here, it dominates what you can do. It takes people some time to unwind, to accept that.” Dealing with wild and weird weather is a growing part of her job. “Especially in Antarctica,” she says, “there’s more seasons with bad weather. All of a sudden there’s lots of ice, or no ice, and we know this is part of climate change. Vegetation is expanding to places where there was none before.”
On our nature landings, there are scant reminders that humans exist, bar a few Inuit and Viking ruins. Even in towns, the moment your muck boot touches the ground, you’re hit with an exhilarating reminder that you’re a long way from home, which is an excellent counterbalance to cruise travel’s tendency to whisk you along vast and unknowable oceans as if it were nothing. Polar bears definitely do exist here though. Never stray from the group, we’re told, and if you do see a bear, for God’s sake don’t take a photo. “Our firearms are a legal obligation but we don’t want to use them,” Kuyper says.
The craggy peaks of Tasermiut Fjord tower 2,000 metres above sea level and the boggy ground blooms with starry flowers, horizontal shrubs, berries, lichen and succulents, all startlingly new to me. Among the dwarf birch and polar willow, Manet points to the foundations of a thousand-year-old Inuit home. “They’d have used whalebones, [whale] ribs and sealskins,” she says, “and the entrance always faced the sea.”
At the fjord’s end, a torrent of glacial meltwater roars out of a double ice cave. Thanks to some gently sloping rock, we can walk up, stand on our tiptoes and touch the ice sheet. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Nagel says. The double ice cave? “No, the edge of the second-largest chunk of ice on earth,” he says. In some shallows, dimpled spheres of ancient ice sparkle among the seaweed. I haul out a huge egg-shaped hunk and do kid stuff, like peer through it in all directions. “Hare!” someone says.
“Arctic hare,” corrects Kirkwood. It’s snowy-white and very shy so we stand quiet and still as it hops by.
Kuyper is firm as she briefs us on the company’s guidelines before our village visits. Never approach a sled dog, number one. Number two: “Kids are great but don’t take photos of them,” she says. “Imagine if it were your home.” The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators goes a step further and suggests asking before you photograph anyone and understand that “a hesitation means NO”. My first goal in town is to shake the other passengers so as not to advance as a herd. It’s humbling enough that we’re wearing matching jackets.
In Paamiut, a whale jawbone arches over the park and model galleons dangle from the church ceiling, a Lutheran practice called “votive ships” that is thought to keep sailors safe. In a school gymnasium we find tables of arts and crafts, and when I decide which beaded Inuit earrings I’ll
buy, the local vendors break out in applause in lieu of shared words. Greenlanders are masterful, minimalist carvers, with an eye for voluptuous lines and small, sinister details. In Qaqortoq, schools of fish, human faces and cetaceans are carved into the cliffs, living sculptures anchored to Greenland’s bedrock. Fences are few in most villages so care must be taken to avoid accidentally ambling into a backyard (if you are, say, drawn to get closer to a polar bear hide — complete with face and claws — such as those sighted on a porch in the east Greenland village of Tasiilaq).
The Tasiilaq museum caretaker, Nikolas Hanson, says a polar bear was seen a week ago 50 kilometres north but they rarely come to town in summer. “The police usually fire a warning shot to scare them away but sometimes they come back at night,” he says. “A couple of years ago, we scared a mother and two cubs away, but the mother bear came back and looked in the window of someone’s living room.” Does an alarm sound if a bear is seen, I ask. “No, nothing,” he says. “You find out when you see them.”
The museum’s display includes sealskin anoraks and antique kayaks, but what stops me in my tracks are the tupilaks: ghoulish carved figures that grimace from many faces, with webbed hands and bared teeth — the stuff of nightmares, really. Hanson explains that before Europeans came, shamans made these avenging spirits using animal skin, sinew and hair. “The shaman would breathe life into the tupilak and its only task was to hunt down and kill its enemies,” he says. “When the job was done, it would just die again.” Europeans were so fascinated that Greenlanders began carving souvenirs from tooth, bone or stone, creating representations of tupilak spirits and beginning a new artistic tradition.
As soon as the trip is over I am incredulous that I was ever there. My photos keep surprising me. I took that shot of icebergs spouting waterfalls and harbouring secret aqua-blue pools? Knowing that I tidied up my cabin, put milk in my tea and small-talked with other passengers as icebergs floated flamboyantly by is stranger still. This must be why people return. Is the itch to see ice ever really scratched? The forest of hands that shoot up when Kuyper asks, “Who’s been to Antarctica?” suggests it’s not.
It’s not just the sights you want to experience again. It’s the Arctic cotton grass swaying under your palm and the action-movie noises of a Zodiac cruise: the brash ice thunking beneath the propeller, the walkie-talkie static and the rifle crack and bassy boom of an iceberg calving.
Months before the trip, I’d asked for sea-sickness tips on Twitter, unsure if I could go at all. “If the cruise involves ice — go,” came one stern reply. So right but so, so wrong. This kind of “see it before it’s gone” ultimatum expresses a particular fatalism that fills me with despair; I don’t want to hear about last-chance bucket-list holidays. The growing climate justice movement, however, insists on a shift away from raw science to civil rights and prioritises the communities most vulnerable to environmental impacts. It requires a very different conversation: one in which we speak about survival and about homes for people, animals and plants.
But a movement needs people. Are we those people? And if not us, in our matching Aurora jackets, then who? Our fingers touched the fringe of Greenland’s ice cap and together, in the ship’s lecture hall, we watched “Chasing Ice” (2012), a documentary with multi-year time-lapse footage of the Arctic’s melting glaciers. Yet while it’s easy to admire the interest of my fellow passengers in the region’s environmental fate, this snowy-haired demographic is not best suited to address it. It lacks two things: youth and a call to action.
Both are manifested on the last day as Jack Alscher, a 22-year-old Aurora guide, delivers a knockout lecture on Arctic geopolitics and international power plays. “We’ve now experienced two incredible weeks in the magical land that is Greenland,” he says. “There’s a really good opportunity for us as citizens back in our home countries to learn and understand more about how politics and foreign policy works up here, and to be better custodians for the places we’ve visited.” Alscher’s lecture is ostensibly about politics but really, it’s about us, and his unspoken question: “Are you those people?”