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Mussels Served Cold, Under Ice—at Low Tide

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Urban and suburban supermarkets have those contests where you win as much stuff as you can cram into your cart in half an hour as you race through the aisles.

The Arctic version: Scurry around underneath the sea ice while the tide is out, scooping up as many mussels as humanly possible before you drown in the incoming tide. You have about half an hour, including the time it takes to lower a ladder down after you've chopped a hole in the ice.

This method of mussel harvesting is used only by the people of Kangiqsujuaq, population 500, near the Hudson Strait on the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec, the BBC said, and their neighbors, a community of Inuit on Wakeham Bay.

It is only possible during extreme low tide, as the sea ice drops by about 40 feet. A full or new moon buys them the most time, since that’s when the tide stays out the longest.

The BBC chronicled these Inuit ice capades on a Jan. 27 edition of Human Planet Explorer.

“We all know stories of mussel hunters who didn’t make it out in time,” Mary Qumaaluk, one of the musselers, says in Inuit in the film. “If you can’t get out, you die.”

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They quickly chop a hole in the ice, slide down, lower a ladder and get to it from among the hundreds of mussels coating the ground under the groaning ice. The ice isn’t stable and could crash down any minute, the BBC narrator intones.

Suddenly Qumaaluk cries, “The water’s coming back! Let’s go!” as the ice ominously starts creaking.

They climb out deliberately but hurriedly, yanking up the ladder just as the sea starts gushing up the hole they just came through.

The BBC story said that climate change is affecting even this practice, as the ice is freezing later and melting earlier every year, and the places where it’s safe enough to risk the under-ice harvest are fewer and farther between.

In a sad epilogue, the BBC reveals that Qumaaluk later died in a quad bike accident. Assistant producer Willow Murton memorialized her.

Catch the full story and a video slice here, and see more at the BBC’s Human Planet site.

The BBC offers a primer on Canada here.