Hunters and researchers in joint whale project

Tarfi (Lars-Erik Mølgård) attaches the arrow with the transmitter to the pole. Notice the "tower" in the stern.
It is not easy to go through the thick sea ice.
Johannes Mølgård on the look out for arfivik - bowhead whale
The first 2 attempts were not successfull
The whale beats with the enourmous tail. The boatman must be sure not to run over it and create a very dangerous situation.
The tail of the bowhead whale can grow up to 6 meters. Photo: Malene Simon
Yes! The arrow is placed exactly at the right spot.
The transmitter has to surface to get in contact with the satellite
Johannes Mølgård gets ready to take a skin sample
The red biopsy arrow is lying neat on the broad back of the bowhead whale.
Tarfi (Lars-Erik Mølgård) and Ado Isaksen registrer position and number. The skin sample is secured for analysis at the Univeristy of Oslo.
Abel Brandt starts the dinghy to go back, while senior reseacher Mads Peter Heide Jørgensen sits content smiling with his hands in his pockets. Usually, Mads Peter does not participate in this field work, but he was in Qeqertarsuaq to introduce new transmitter.


Hunters from Qeqertarsuaq in Disko Bay are tagging bowhead whales with satellite transmitters for the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. 

By Kitte Vinter-Jensen, Information Officer at Greenland Institute of Natural resources. This reportage is brought in Airgreenlands in-flight magazine October 2011.

With a slight jerk of the boat, Johannes speeds up. The two other dinghies immediately follow suit. Everything happens without words. One man moves, the others follow. Tarfi stands absolutely still in the dinghy’s “pulpit”. Ado sails the dinghy into position close to the whale and takes care not to run over the tail. The other two dinghies turn aside to block the way and are ready with crossbows loaded with biopsy darts to take skin samples. The whale flips its tail. It is a dangerous situation. Ado skilfully turns the dinghy away and we give up. The whale has dived.

We lie still and rock in the water between the ice floes and look for the whale. On average the bowhead whale dives down to a depth of 200 metres and does not surface for 20 minutes, so it can take some time. But there is a blow after a few minutes, so it must already be tired. Again there is just a slight jerk of the boat when Johannes accelerates and speeds towards the whale. It is obvious that I am on the water with an experienced sailor, who both knows the whale’s and his engine’s habits and movements. 

The next attempt is a success. Everything happens at breakneck speed. All three boatmen move as soon as the whale comes up. Within seconds, Ado is close enough and lets the boat glide alongside the whale’s back, while Tarfi deftly attaches the satellite transmitter to the thick skin. As Tarfi raises his arm in triumph having attached the tag correctly, the others fire the crossbows with the biopsy darts to take skin samples from the whale. The whale moves off and we collect the darts from the water. All that remains is to register that transmitter number 7927 has been attached to a bowhead whale 10 kilometres southwest of Qeqertarsuaq and to take care of the biopsy samples so they can be sent for analysis at the University of Oslo. 

A well-oiled machine

The entire operation ran like a well-oiled machine from start to finish without the exchange of a single word. It took two hours from when we sailed out of the marina in Qeqertarsuaq until we sat and enjoyed a well-earned cup of warm soup. A lot can go wrong during a whale-tagging campaign. The weather is of course the primary player, but the whale also has to be found in a comparatively large area and the transmitter must be placed precisely so that it comes out of the water and makes contact with the satellite. It transmits every fifth day for over a year.

Since 1999, Abel Brandt and, in part, also Ado Isaksen, Johannes Mølgård and Tarfi/Lars Erik Mølgård have worked from April to October for the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, taking samples of the catch, collecting narwhal stomachs and the genitals of game, carrying fuel and equipment into the field, taking biopsy samples and tagging minke whales, bowhead whales and humpbacked whales with transmitters. They also work for other researchers doing field work in the Disko Bay. In April this year they helped a film crew that was filming bowhead whales underwater.

-          It is an exciting job. This is what we do best, and at the same time learn new things about the animals, how many there are and where they go. When we have tagged a whale we go home and check on the internet to see if the transmitter has been correctly placed and we look to see where the whales we have previously tagged are, explainss Abel Brandt with a satisfied smile.  

No conflict of interest

But is there a conflict of interest between the hunters and the scientists? The answer “no” comes promptly. It is only the big cutters with approved harpoons that catch the big whales. In addition to their wages from tagging and collecting biopsy samples, Ado, Johannes, Tarfi and Abel make a living from seal hunting, fishing and selling mattak from white whales and narwhals. So it is only in connection with white whale and narwhal counts that there could be a conflict of interest.   

-          In our opinion there should not be quotas for white whales and narwhals. There are plenty of whales, and nature and the ice protects them. Last year we hardly caught any whales because of the bad weather. But there is no conflict involved in us helping to find out how many whales there are and where they move. We are happy to help with making sure the population is big enough, not only for our children and grandchildren too, says Abel, while his hunter colleagues nod in agreement.  

-          Cooperation between scientists and hunters is not new. When we work with marine mammals, we naturally work with and for those who make a living from the animals, says senior researcher at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, Mads Peter Heide Jørgensen and continues:

-          Over the years, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources has bought samples of various beasts of prey from the hunters. The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources has limited resources for studies, so it is to everyone’s advantage to hire local people for this kind of work. We save a journey up here and the local region benefits from the funding. The hunters are experts where close contact with the animals is concerned, so I don’t have to come and tell them what to do.  


Tagging the whales is used, among other things, to acquire data which is used to calculate the size of the population.
Up to now, 600 biopsy samples from bowhead whales have been collected. The biopsies will be used to determine the whales’ gender, to identify individuals and for various other genetic studies. As a direct result of the previous years’ work, it is known that 80 percent of the adult bowhead whales in the waters of West Greenland are females, that the population of bowhead whales is between 1000 and 2500 animals and that there is no distinct, Greenlandic population. 

Updated 06.06.2019