Nunavut hunters rescued after walrus flips boat, leaving them to wait 6 hours for rescue

A photo taken by Joey Sarpinak while he and 2 others waited on their capsized boat for rescue near Sanirajak, Nunavut. (Joey Sarpinak - image credit)
A photo taken by Joey Sarpinak while he and 2 others waited on their capsized boat for rescue near Sanirajak, Nunavut. (Joey Sarpinak - image credit)

A walrus hunt turned into a life-and-death situation for three hunters from Sanirajak, Nunavut, on Saturday after the walrus they shot attempted to haul itself onto their boat, spilling them into the icy water.

"The only thing I thought was, we're going to die. That's all I thought," recalled Joey Sarpinak, one of the three hunters now safely back home.

Sarpinak, along with Sandy Kunuk and 15-year-old John Kirk Amagoalik, had gone out in a small aluminum boat at the floe edge near the community of about 900 people. They spotted a walrus and Kunuk took a shot.

Sarpinak said the animal then disappeared underwater before resurfacing. Kunuk got in a couple more shots and the walrus went under again. Sarpinak said he was then preparing a harpoon to ensure they didn't lose the animal if it sank.

"And then, out of nowhere, the walrus surfaced right at the back of the boat and started climbing on top of the boat," he recalled.

"When it's wounded, they are known to climb on top of the ice, so I think that's why the walrus hopped on our boat."

The animal's massive bulk was too much for the small boat and it capsized. The three hunters were thrown into the water but Sarpinak said he managed to grab the side of the boat as it was going over. The overturned vessel then had enough air trapped in the hull to stay afloat, and Sarpinak got on top.

Joey Sarpinak
Joey Sarpinak

"So that's how we survived," Sarpinak said.

He pulled the other two out of the freezing water, and the walrus had disappeared. Now began a long and frigid wait for help, perched on top of the capsized boat.

"We were just waiting to get rescue. And nobody came," Kunuk said.

"Being cold for too long, it becomes normal. We even stopped shivering," Sarpinak said.

Isaiah Pikuyak
Isaiah Pikuyak

6-hour wait for rescue

Local search-and-rescue volunteers received the hunters' distress call around 2 p.m. It was -20 C at the time, according to weather data from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

But strong ocean currents and moving ice meant they had to wait six hours — until the sun set and the ice had hardened — before the hunters could crawl across the ice to safety.

WARNING: this video contains graphic language

George Innuksuk, one of the volunteers, said the rescue became more difficult when one of the volunteers was injured on the way to help the stranded men.

"I thought, what else can go wrong?" he told CBC News in Inuktitut. "We kept our calm and continued the rescue mission."

Isaiah Pikuyak
Isaiah Pikuyak

Sarpinak recalls waiting in the dark for rescue. He said the only thing he could think about was his girlfriend and daughter.

"We couldn't see anything at all," he recalled. "The only thing that mattered was to get back on the main ice where the people was."

They eventually made it back to safety. Back in town they were taken to the local hospital to get checked out and Sarpinak said Tuesday that they're all doing fine.

George Innuksuk
George Innuksuk

Amagoalik said the homecoming after their harrowing ordeal was "the best day I had."

"I've never felt like that before. I was so happy when I got home," he said.

The community held a feast Monday night to celebrate the successful rescue.