Qeqertarsuaq – Disco Island
The volcanic island in the heart of Disco Bay
Welcome to Qeqertarsuaq – Disco Island
Legend says that two catchers went hunting for seals in South Greenland, saw Disco Island and pulled it northwards. It was simply in their way when the hunters were heading for the sea, so they moved the island with their kayaks and a strain of hair from an infant. In Ilulissat, a witch saw the island, cast a spell and ran the island aground. That is how Disco Island received its current location.
The “documented” history of Disco Island (Qeqertarsuaq in Greenlandic) begins in the 16th / 17th Century, even if traces of habitation have been found 4.000 to 4.500 years before that. The history of the volcanic island has pivoted around whaling and for many years, Qeqertarsuaq, the main town of Disco Island, functioned as the capital of North Greenland.
Disco Island is of volcanic origin with hot springs and mountains that look different, compared to the rest of Disco Bay. So if you are a nature lover, interested in Greenlandic history and want to see whales – then Disco Island is the ideal travel destination for you.
The Greenlandic word “Immaqa” means “maybe” and when travelling in Greenland, you should always keep a slight ”immaqa” in the back of your head. Things change in Greenland and the arctic weather is forever changeable so you can never plan everything from home and expect to stick to schedule.
The volcanic island Qeqertarsuaq
Qeqertarsuaq means ”the large island” and it is indeed Greenland’s largest island. If you are interested in geology, you will enjoy a stay here. The island lies in the middle of Disco Bay, and can be reached in a day’s boat cruise.
The island differs from the rest of Greenland as it is of volcanic origin. The landscape is characterized by basaltic mountains and a type of vegetation, not found elsewhere in predominantly flat areas. The area around the town is very fertile with Angelica Gigas and other plants – the rest of the island is untouched nature with hot springs that never freeze (you cannot bathe in them, though). This provides heat and good conditions for vegetation, so judging from arctic standards, Disco Island has a very varied flora and fauna.
Generally, Disco Island is known for its beautiful nature, abundant flora and a certain geology that made geological surveys possible from 1848. In 1906, the “Arctic Station” was founded and it is now the oldest manned field station in the arctic region. The Arctic Station conducts arctic research on bio- and geo-related issues.
With an area of 8,578 km², it is one of the largest islands in the world. It is located about 80 kilometers from Ilulissat. Qeqertarsuaq is about 160 kilometers long and has an average elevation of 975 meters above sea level. The highest point is 1,919 meters above the surface of the sea.
The main town of Qeqertarsuaq
The main town of Qeqertarsuaq is also called Qeqertarsuaq, and has about 850 residents today. Qeqertarsuaq was founded in 1773 under the name of Godhavn by the whaler and merchant, Svend Sandgreen.
Qeqertarsuaq is beautifully located by the Disco Bay. In the background, basalt mountains rise in their majestic appearance. The town is located on a peninsula and has a natural harbor. The main occupation is crab and halibut; crab fishing being the essential one.
The church is popularly referred to as ”God’s Little Inkwell” because of its unique shape and is located in the middle of town, just as the school. The old Doctor’s residence and former headquarters for the Governor of North Greenland, is today a museum and we highly recommend a visit as it gives a good insight into the city that was once the capital of North Greenland.
Only one settlement on Disco Island
Today, Kangerluk is the only settlement (smaller than a town) left on the island and is located in the largest fjord system, about 35 km north of Qeqertarsuaq, completely surrounded by the characteristic mountains.
Kangerluk has 18 residents (per 2019). The number of residents has varied a lot over the past 200 years and the settlement has even been uninhabited several times. In the settlement, you will find a post office, a factory and a shop that sells the Uuvaq fjord cod. In the school, a room has been made into a functioning church. Kangerluk has its own power station to which most of the settlement’s houses are connected. The main occupation in Kangerluk is still hunting and fishing as it has been since the settlement was established. This settlement has always been one of the most isolated in Greenland.
Until 1972, there was a coal mine by Qullissat on the north eastern side of the island. After the mine was closed, residents were moved to different towns, including Qeqertarsuaq. However, most were moved to Ilulissat, where a part of town was named “Little Qullissat”.
Disco Island – where the whales meet
From spring to autumn, the area around Disco Island is where large whales meet and gambol. Most often, you will see the bowhead whale (from April to May) and the humpback whale (May to September). In the 17th Century, the first whaling stations were established on Disco Island. These optimal fishing grounds attracted many European whaling expeditions. Whaling Station ”Godhavn” (today Qeqertarsuaq) was founded in 1773 by the whaler Svend Sandgreen. For many years, Godhavn was an important base for whaling in the Davis Strait. Today, the town harbor still is a lively place due to the common fishing.
Soccer on beaches with black sand
The beach in Qeqertarsuaq is covered in fine black sand. It is also called basalt sand and was formed many, many years ago. The town’s soccer field is located by the beach so if the ball rolls into the water, you may need to buy another. Fortunately the ball may also be thrust onto shore again! The soccer pitch has been equipped with artificial grass. Here, you can often watch soccer games with the huge icebergs in the background. Take some great pictures with fantastic colors.
Midnight Sun on Disco Island
In Qeqertarsuaq, you will see the Midnight Sun from the end of May until the end of July. While the Midnight Sun reigns, there is no big temperature difference between day and night. The Midnight Sun can be seen near the Arctic Circle and does not appear south of Sisimiut.
Stunning views of Disco Bay from the Lyngmark Glacier
On the mountain across the town you will find the Lyngmark Glacier, located 900 meters above sea level. It is the only place in Greenland where you can go dog sledding in summer if the snow is stable. Here, there is snow all year round, so summer dog sledding is possible.
If you’re interested in this excursion, you can check for conditions on the glacier and book the trip with the local tourist operator at the hotel, while you’re on the island. Stable snow conditions or not, the view from the 900 meters altitude is always well worth the hike. You will have an astonishing view of Disco Bay, one that really puts meaning into ”watching as far as the eye can see”. You can hike to the top and back in a day or you can choose to spend a night at the Lyngmark cabins on the glacier. An overnight stay will give you plenty of time to really enjoy the stunning views.
Disco Island is made for hiking
The landscape on Disco Island is characterized by earlier volcanic activity and steep basalt mountains. The three mountains: Apostelfjeldet, Lyngmarksfjeldet and the Skarvefjeldet form the island’s profile and end wall to the north. The area is ideal for hiking – e.g. through the Red River on the coast of Kuannit. Kuannit is a fertile area, where the locals enjoy wild Angelica Gigas. The area is known for its unique columnar basalt formations. Along the coast, you will find natural lava formations resembling a camel and elephants. Your hike may continue towards the Skarvefjeldet mountain, over the lateral Petursons moraine with a view over the Blæsedalen valley.
When hiking in Greenland, expect tracks to be uneven and not well marked. That also goes for Qeqertarsuaq. You can choose to take part in organized tours or, if you are an experienced rambler, you can hike without a guide.
Sailing to Kangerluk
If you have a day available on Disco Island, you can go on a full-day trip to the settlement Kangerluk, which is the largest fjord on Disco Island. From the harbor, we cruise past Kilit and the steep blue mountains that have a great birdlife, into the Kangerluk fjord. Here, you can experience life in a settlement and the difficult conditions that form the basis of a small hunting community. The village is located approximately 35 kilometers north of Qeqertarsuaq. Please note, that the boat used is open and that it can be cold. So if you’re traveling with small children, and the weather is cold, we do not recommend this trip.
Dining in Qeqertarsuaq
There is only one restaurant in town called Nilak. It is located by the Hotel Disko and Siku Aput. You will also find a grill bar, kiosks and a supermarket with a bakery that sells sandwiches.
Spend the night on Disco Island
There is only one hotel in town, Hotel Disco. There are two hostels in Qeqertarsuaq; the Panorama Hostel and the Siorarsuit Hostel. You can also spend the night in the Lyngmark Cabins on the Lyngmark Glacier. You are also welcome to camp in the hills.
How to get to Qeqertarsuaq
In principle, you can get to Qeqertarsuaq several ways as there are helicopters flying to Disco Island. However, these mainly fly with supplies. Tourists usually go with the sailing services from Ilulissat or Aasiaat. The ship also gives you the option of taking a daytrip to Disco Island from Ilulissat. Food is available on the ship but as it is heated “cup noodles”, we recommend that you bring your own lunch.
During winter, the residents are more isolated as it is only helicopters and ships (providing there is no ice) that bring supplies to town. That is why you can risk sold out supplies and might have to wait for a new shipment of supplies.