Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Canada's Inuit gather mussels under the sea ice
A dangerous hunt for food, under the sea ice at low tide in northern Canada.
The Inuit of Arctic Canada take huge risks to gather mussels in winter. During extreme low tides, they climb beneath the shifting sea ice, but have less than an hour before the water returns.
The 500 people of Kangiqsujuaq, near the Hudson Strait, go to great lengths to add variety to their diet of seal meat, seal meat and yet more seal meat.
This settlement and a neighbouring community on Wakeham Bay are thought to be the only places where people harvest mussels from under the thick blanket of ice that coats the Arctic sea throughout the winter.
The locals can only do this during extreme low tides, when sea ice drops by up to 12m (about 40 feet), opening fissures through which the exposed seabed - and its edible riches - can be glimpsed. The best time to go is when the moon is either full or brand new, as this is when the tide stays out the longest.
Filmed for the BBC's Human Planet, they lower themselves into these temporary caverns to gather as many fat and juicy mussels as they can before the tide rushes back in.
It is a risky operation. The ice above is no longer supported by water, and it shifts and groans ominously during the harvest.
Often, says photographer Patrice Halley, who has documented this risky practice for years, a group of mussel-gatherers will have no more than a single lantern or flashlight among them.
A look-out keeps watch for the returning tide, but warning shouts cannot be too loud in case the echoes bring down the ice.
Then it's a scramble to get out before the shifting ice closes the escape hole and seawater refills the caverns.
"We all know stories of mussel hunters who didn't make it out in time. If you can't get out, you die," Mary Qumaaluk told the Human Planet team. She subsequently died in a quad bike accident.
Mussel gathering is a tradition that goes back generations in Kangiqsujuaq, on Quebec's Ungava Peninsula. But the locals say it is getting harder to find places safe enough to venture beneath the ice, which freezes later and melts earlier than it did even a few decades ago.
Thanks to the BBC and Human Planet