Tuperna Davidsen is a 39 years old Greenlander who was my guide in my most recent trip “La NORD de cuvinte”. I had the chance to spend a few days on her boat and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about Greenland, its traditions and challenges, about life beyond the Arctic Circle, mass tourism, whale hunting, climate change and many more. Enjoy!

This is how she introduced herself:

My name is Tuperna Davidsen. I am 39, born and raised in Ilulissat which is in north-west Greenland. I am a trained nurse, but I currently work in tourism because I like to show our beautiful and unique country and talk about our culture and traditions. I have a 10-year-old son. I believe it is important we learn to protect nature from a young age, so I take him outdoors as often as I can. This is how he will learn to respect the environment and the wildlife and he will also have the opportunity to learn from what nature has to offer.

Tuperna, how did you spend your childhood in Ilulissat? I know you have a son, so how do you perceive childhood nowadays besides the changes brought about by technology and the Internet?

My childhood in Ilulissat was amazing. I used to play outside with my friends a lot. Back then there was no internet and we didn’t have any smartphones, so if we wanted to meet a specific friend we had to knock on their door to see if they were home. During summer my family usually went outside of town. We spent our holidays outdoors and slept in tents. My dad usually went seal hunting and I stayed with my mother and my grandparents near the tent. They picked berries and herbs and cooked fish, birds and seals. I also wandered on the seashore trying to find small animals or seashells and collecting nice, interesting stones. And I just remember those were very good times. I never got bored and I was always creative.

My son’s upbringing is of course something completely different. But I try, as far as possible, to pass on all the good things that I have brought with me from my own childhood. We spend a lot of time outdoors, especially at our cabin, where he can be close to nature and learn from what it has to offer. And I also teach him how to respect it: he must only catch the amount of fish we can eat, he must not throw waste into our nature, etc.

What did you eat as a child and how have eating habits changed over time?

As a child I ate a lot of locally produced food. We still eat Greenlandic food in my home, but I can’t help noticing how much the outside world has impacted the way we eat. Nowadays many families eat a lot of European food and also fast food, and we are also opening more fast food restaurants in Greenland, which I personally think is a threat to our health.

I know hunting has played an integral role in feeding Inuit communities over millenia. However, most of the planet's inhabitants will frown because you are still hunting whales and seals. What can you say in defence of this Inuit tradition?

Inuit people have lived on their catch for thousands of years. Greenland is in the Arctic, so growing vegetables has not been possible here. Some people have built greenhouses and they are growing vegetables for their own consumption; buying vegetables and other produce from overseas is very expensive for us. When we return from hunting, we are usually very skilled at using the whole animal we caught. The meat is shared with everyone in the family. For example, my family and I go reindeer hunting every year, and we shoot enough reindeer so that we have meat to last the whole family a year. We divide the meat into parts we use for soup, small bits, meat we mince, steaks, roasts and many more. The liver is used for terrines, reindeer skins are used to cover the seats when we go dog sledding in winter. When we hunt seals, it’s also for the entire family. We eat the meat and we give the rest to the dogs. So I think the way we eat is very sustainable in Greenland where we hunt wild animals that are not in captivity.

Is it hard to make a living in Greenland? What do you do for a living?

I don’t think it’s difficult to earn money in Greenland. For those who want to work, there is always a job available. I am a trained nurse, but last year I decided to take a break from the nursing profession and have started to work in tourism here in Greenland. It’s a lot more rewarding to work with happy customers as opposed to caring for sick or dying people. And I also get to be outdoors more, which is a huge bonus for me.

What do you lack most on the island?

I don’t ever feel like I’d lack anything in my everyday life. Sure, I miss all my friends who live in Nuuk. If you want to travel anywhere in Greenland, you can only go to other towns by plane or by ferry. Sometimes I wish we lived closer.

If I remember correctly, your father is a dog breeder and owns about 20 sled dogs. What do sleds mean to you in 2023?

Every winter we go out in the wild on our dog-pulled sleds, although we don’t do this as often as we did it when I was a child. Our winters have become shorter and there is less snow, therefore many people do not own so many dogs anymore. But the joy of going out on a dog-pulled sled is great every single time. Dogs are always happy to pull and you can breathe fresh air without having to bear with the engine noise and the subsequent pollution.

Have you ever considered leaving Greenland and raising your child in a "developed" country? Would you trade the quiet beauty of your island for the hustle and bustle of a European/American city, even if the latter would provide access to better healthcare, higher education and countless other opportunities for personal growth?

I have considered taking a year off and going somewhere where English is spoken so that my son can learn to speak English fluently. But I have never considered leaving Greenland permanently. I lived in Denmark for 4 years in total, but I really missed Greenland, its nature and culture; I can’t live without it and without my family and friends. The easy accessibility of nature is of utmost importance to many Greenlanders because it is so close to us.

Greenland gave me the finest and most meaningful life lesson. Never before and nowhere else have I seen people so genuinely happy to meet tourists. What exactly awakens this joy in you? And I mean not only in those popular, touristy places, but also in the capital and the coastal cities, which are only visited by a handful of foreigners.

Hmmm, I guess it just comes naturally to us to smile and be friendly. Inuit people are very welcoming and warm and they are happy to meet other people.

How do you feel the effects of climate change knowing that Greenland is warming 6 times faster than the global average?

I can really feel the difference in climate change from when I was a child to nowadays. I was nine years old 30 years ago. Back then, the sea froze over every winter so fishermen went out on the ice right in front of their hometown to fish by cutting holes in the ice. Now the sea doesn’t ever freeze at all anymore. We used to have a lot of snow from November until May. The weather used to be the same every year both in summer and in winter. Today we only get snow late in the year, in October and maybe in January too (just a small amount) and it also rains a lot in winter. As a result, there are alternating layers of snow and ice, which is bad for the animals. Today we see storms in both winter and summer. And sometimes in summer we have witnessed lately a lot of rain (even snow, sometimes) so our air has become very humid, therefore summers are foggier, which is unusual for us.

Tell me more about the fog. It is impossible to rely on the weather there. Fog appears out of the blue and visibility drops to less than 10 metres in just a few minutes. And this happens several times a day! I remember that out of the six days I spent in Ilulissat, there was only one clear evening. So tell me how you plan your activities? How do you sail? When has the weather started to change so quickly?

It is true that we have had a lot of foggy weather lately. Traditionally, Inuit people cannot plan too far ahead into the future. We usually take a look through the window in the morning to check the weather, and what we see out there will shape the rest of our day. At least this is useful, to some extent, to those who don’t rely on weather to do their jobs. But there is also something that is still very much inscribed somewhere deep within ourselves: we can’t change weather, therefore we quickly adjust to it. I can also tell you that many Greenlanders have already grown tired of this fussy, moody, unpredictable weather.

What stories do you know from your parents or grandparents? What did Greenland look like back in the day?

Back then there were no tourists in town. People were very isolated from everything, but despite this they were very active and relied mostly on what they hunted or caught. The dogs also meant a lot to the people back then. In summer most of the time was spent outdoors, away from towns; people lived in tents and went seal hunting and caught fish that they dried to last the whole long winter ahead.

I remember my mother used to fix a lot of sealskin when I was a child. She washed, cleaned and dried the skins and used them to make anoraks, camiks and mittens for us all. But now a lot has changed and people don’t spend time the same way anymore because of television and social media.

Are the authorities in Greenland taking measures to reduce pollution and the effects of climate change? I was surprised to see that the price of gasoline is 4.5 DKK, which means approximately 70 euro cents. Practically, this price encourages consumption, by no means reducing pollution.

Greenland has a very small population. Most of it practice fishing and hunting, so the authorities have decided to keep the price of petrol down so as to support hunters and fishermen. If we need to talk about pollution in Greenland, I think we should consider the many cruise ships that come near our shores in summer. Here, our authorities could be stricter and make more rules about which ships are allowed to enter Greenlandic waters.

As of next year there will be direct flights to and from North America for the first time. Is it a good thing, beyond the obvious pollution, crowding, and price increase due to a larger number of tourists?

I don’t think it is beneficial to build two Atlantic airports at all. I’m afraid that we will get mass tourism in Greenland, and this will destroy both our nature and will impact the wildlife.

Are you afraid that large numbers of tourists from the U.S. will turn Ilulissat into a city? I saw how much is being built in both Ilulissat and Nuuk.

Nuuk and Ilulissat are already cities. Our authorities have always directed more money to these towns and have sort of “forgotten” the smaller towns and therefore not developed them as much as I personally think they should have. However, Nuuk and Ilulissat are the two towns that bring money for the whole of Greenland, that‘s why there is more focus on them. As a result, people from smaller towns and villages have been moving to these two towns. We can already see there is a shortage of housing units and prices are higher and higher.

I visited the UNESCO site in Ilulissat - the largest in the world. On the way to the IceFjord, the path was almost empty. I rarely met a person on my way there. On the way back, I could barely move forward through the crowd (the MSC cruise ship had just docked in the harbour). How does this type of tourism influence your life? It only takes from those places without giving anything in return (those tourists sleep and eat aboard and they can only buy a small souvenir or a coffee in Ilulissat)

I am personally against cruise ships, mostly because they pollute a lot and also because they go to places where wildlife should never be disturbed. It’s true that these tourists don’t spend much money on our island. Only a few local companies make a profit, but I do not agree with this type of tourism at all: the ship comes into the harbour for a day and the voyagers show no interest in our culture. They just tick off Greenland from their “been there” list and that’s it. Nothing else matters.

How do you take care of nature? What do you do to protect it?

Yes, I have met individuals who don’t appreciate nature and who don’t believe in climate change. But I think most tourists I have met personally have been very respectful of nature. Unfortunately I also met a few who believe that nature will “fix” everything all by itself. But I also noticed that many locals and especially our fishermen who live off nature/the sea don’t respect nature enough. Many of them throw rubbish off their boats thinking that the sea is a huge dumping ground. And that’s a real shame.

I know that you are a great nature lover. Were there any tourists on your boat who didn't appreciate our relationship with nature?

Yes! I have met many who don’t believe in global warming, and who believe that it’s only natural that the climate gets both warmer and colder over the years.

But I also noticed that many locals and especially our fishermen who live off nature/the sea don’t respect nature enough. Many of them throw rubbish off their boats thinking that the sea is a huge dumping ground. And that’s a real shame.

Have you met any people/tourists who don't believe in global warming? What advice would you give to those who are still skeptical?

Yes! I have met many who don’t believe in global warming, and who believe that it’s only natural that the climate gets both warmer and colder over the years. What do I want to say to these people? I would tell them to try living in Arctic climates and see how quickly we can feel climate change here.

What do most tourists say about Greenland?

Tourists say many things. Right now, I think the longer runways for airplanes is a topic. Making Greenland more reachable. What if we got more tourists here? Most people who got here by plane say that Greenland is expensive or a more difficult destination than many other countries. They also think it’s unique and worth the money. But then there are those cruise ships and the tourists there who don’t bring money directly into our country.

I’ve also heard that Greenland is a hot topic all over the world, and I think Trump (the former U.S. president) is partly guilty of this as he once declared he wanted to buy Greenland 🙂

Do you sense any foreign political influence? Do you think they want to turn Greenland into an exotic destination for American tourists? How would this alter your life?

I think the Danish government cooperates well with the American politicians. I am not 100% sure about this, though. I think this is why they are building airports in Nuuk and Ilulissat, so that we can have direct flights to/from the U.S. I still think that our country is very much influenced by the Danish government.

I hope they won’t try to turn Greenland into an exotic destination. Greenland must remain a unique place to visit.

I saw massive movements of American military troops at Kangerlussuaq. Do you know anything about what is happening there? Does the war in Ukraine have any impact on Greenland?

I have no idea what the American military troops are doing in Kangerlussuaq. The war in Ukraine has definitely made our prices go up, but politically, I don’t know.

We spent four days together looking for whales, for different shooting angles and for the right light on the icebergs, but we also had company - the Red Sails. What do you think about this photographic phenomenon built around the beauties of Ilulissat without these companies contributing in any way to the well-being of the place?

I think it’s unfair. Not only the red sailboats, but many others from other countries, come to Greenland and especially Ilulissat in the summertime and do tourism. They know how to use our nature to make money without paying taxes here and without hiring locals. I think our world has become too money-oriented. Everything revolves around money and where/how to make more money. There is less and less fair play and empathy in our world, and I find that scary.

What can you tell us about the whales' behaviour? What have you noticed since you have been sailing alongside them?

There are more and more tourist boats in the summer and they all follow the whales. I think the whales that come here are starting to become more shy. Humpback whales are quite curious animals and if you don’t intrude, they will eventually come closer to a boat. You don’t have to follow them all the time, they also need their time alone, time to eat and sleep in peace.

What is it like to live beyond the arctic circle, to have both the midnight sun and the polar night? Which time of the year is the hardest for you and why?

It’s something you get used to. In the summer, when you have the midnight sun and you are on holiday, you can actually decide when you want to sleep and when to be awake. I personally think winter, when it is dark all the time, is the hardest: the end of November and the beginning of December. But the lights that are lit up for Christmas always help boost your mood and you spend more time together, indoors, having fun with family and friends.

What is your best memory of the aurora borealis?

When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, in the wilderness where it’s pitch dark – no light from houses, streets or cars – and the northern lights dance in the sky above as far as the eye can see, I always think it’s magical.

What place do you wish you could visit?

I have been to many places in the world. What I dream of at the moment is to visit Peru and Sri Lanka, I want to get to know those cultures. I have always thought it is more important to offer my son experiences rather than things. Experiences will last a lifetime, therefore I think it’s crucial that he is exposed to other cultures.

When was the last time you saw a polar bear? You live in Greenland.

Although I am from Greenland, I have never seen a polar bear until now. I would have to go to Eastern Greenland to see one, which I hope I will, someday.