Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

Barrow Whaling

 

A traditional umiaq boat awaits the action on the sea ice near a red buoy. The latter is attached to the harpoon. It keeps the animal afloat after the kill. Photos: Faustine Mercer

Our PFS colleague Faustine Mercer was invited along on a whale hunt a few weeks ago. Along with Steve Hastings, Faustine manages CPS science support for National Science Foundation-funded researchers at Barrow, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea coast.  She spends a long stretch of the spring and summer in Barrow, and was on hand when a friend, Josh Bacon, invited her along to witness the hunt. 

“Josh works as a biologist for the Wildlife Department,” Faustine explained. “When a whale is killed, someone from the Department samples tissues and makes measurements of the whale. Because of the whale census also going on and the limited number of staff, he asked me if I wanted to help him.”

Barrow’s traditional culture is based on subsistence principals, which means that the Inuit who live there rely on the land and the ocean primarily for the food they eat. It is one of nine Alaskan communities permitted to harvest the cetaceans by the International Whaling Committee.  Around 50 bowhead whales are caught each year in Alaska.

In Barrow, the whale harvest is a very big deal, an event governed by tradition and the whaling captains who lead the hunt (and the community).  When they arrived at the whaling camp, Josh and Faustine “talked to the whaling captain to make sure he was OK with us being there,” Faustine recalled.  “We got formally invited by him to do whatever we needed to.” 

While preparing to sample and measure the whale, Faustine witnessed the hunters pursuing another whale.

A Barrow, Alaska, whaling crew in a traditional animal-skin-covered boat goes after a humpback whale. Photos: Faustine Mercer

“I was on the sea ice the whole time, right next to the lead. It was a wide flat area after the pressure ridge, perfect for setting camp and hunting.

“We were checking on our whale that was still in the water, attached by the tail when the other whalers jumped in their umiaq (animal skin boat) to follow a whale that had just passed them. That happened right in front of me, less than 100m away.”

Later, the activity returned to the whale Faustine wanted to examine. “It took almost three hours to pull it up a ramp that the crew (20 people and five snowmachines) made on the ice. People from other crews helped also, but it was a fairly small number. Once the whale was on the ramp, they put some blocking tackles together, hooked it up to the tail, and people and snowmobiles started to pull.”

About 20 people helped to pull the whale out of the water.

As soon as the whale was landed, “butchering started right away, so we had only a few minutes to take our measurements. They cut a piece of blubber right away and gave it to the women so they could start making unalik (boiled skin and blubber) to give to everyone who was helping.”

The butchering portion was an efficient operation orchestrated by the whaling captain, Faustine said. When it was over, “the captain got to choose which part he wanted. Then, everyone who helped with butchering got a share.  A woman took people’s names and the blubber and meat was divided up on the ice according to the list. They used everything except for the guts and eyes (we actually took the eye balls to know the exact age). Someone cut the liver skin off too, as they use it to make drums. In less than three hours, the whale had totally disappeared.”

Later, when it was ready, Faustine tried her share of unalik—the boiled skin and blubber of the fresh whale that is a tradition of the harvest. “The unalik tasted kind of like fish, not bad at all, though fat as expected. The texture of the skin after being boiled is totally different than expected, as fresh it feels rubbery and looks chewy.

“People were laughing and happy, so I can say it was a celebration!”

For more on traditional hunting, visit http://www.nativetech.org/inupiat/index.html