Utqiaġvik felt unembellished, bordered as it was by the Arctic Ocean on one side and the treeless tundra on the other, and even in the height of summer the temperature was cold and the skies gray. There was one impressive, if haunting, ornamentation, however, that added contrast to the landscape—bowhead whale bones, bleached and enormous. Skeletons were displayed in front of public buildings, and their tusk-like jaw bones, some over 20 feet long, stood erect outside of homes.
Most breathtaking were the massive skulls lying on the beach, seemingly abandoned; in reality, they were left there to dry, the oils gradually evaporating over months and years. Eventually they will be moved to a final resting place, which might be anywhere around town, from a front yard to an office building.
The Iñupiat people, who have lived in the Alaskan Arctic for thousands of years, are expert whale hunters. They have hunted bowhead whales for millennia and continue to harvest them, on a subsistence basis, to this day. The importance of whales to the Iñupiat was unmistakable, even during our short visit to Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow). More than any other animal, the whale shapes who they are.
Here’s a little of what we learned about Iñupiat culture, whale hunting, and the creature at the center of it all, the bowhead whale.
The Iñupiat people
The Iñupiat are one of several Arctic peoples who, until recently, fell under the umbrella term of Eskimo.¹ Archeological evidence shows that the Iñupiat and their ancestors have inhabited the Alaskan Arctic since at least 500 AD, and Utqiaġvik is one of the oldest permanent settlements in the United States.
An archeological site in town, for example, contains the remains of the ancient village of Ukpiaġvik, including 16 sod mound homes. The village dates to around 800 AD. Ukpiaġvik, which means, “the place where we hunt snowy owls,” was one of several villages in the area, and people settled here because of the abundant food sources to be found.
Today, about 13,500 Iñupiat reside in Alaska. Their territory includes 34 villages and spans three of America’s largest boroughs, the North Slope, Northwest Arctic, and Nome Census Area.
Many Iñupiat continue to live the subsistence lifestyle of their ancestors, and because of their status as an indigenous people, they can legally hunt a variety of animals, including whales, walrus, seals, fish, polar bears, caribou, and numerous bird species.
The bowhead whale
While the Iñupiat hunt many Arctic creatures, the animal that’s most critical to their way of life is the bowhead whale.
The bowhead is part of the baleen family of whales, the biggest animals on the planet. It is a magnificent creature, ranging in size from 45-65 feet in length and weighing anywhere from 75-100 tons. It has the largest mouth of any animal, and its baleen, the longest of any whale, can exceed 13 feet in length (that’s about double the height of the average pro basketball player). It also has the thickest blubber of any whale (17-19 inches thick).
The bowhead eats some of the smallest life in the ocean, using its baleen to filter feed on krill, crustaceans, and tiny fish.
To get a sense of just how big the bowhead is, one only needs to look at its jaw bones and then do the math. Its size can be estimated based on the lower jawbone, which is about a third the length of its entire body. If the jawbone in question is 20 feet in length, then the big fella that owns it would be about 60 feet long, total.
Pictured below is Utqiaġvik’s world-famous jaw bone arch, a memorial erected in 1941 to honor lost sailors. Each bone is 23 feet in length, so the bowhead whale to which they belonged was about 69 feet long. For perspective, a typical school bus is 36 feet long, and an 18-wheeler runs 70-80 feet in length.
Below, Jingyi and I put things into perspective:
And consider the statistics for the whale pictured below, on display at Iḷisaġvik College. The skull is 17 feet long, indicating a creature that’s about 50 feet in length. But that’s not all: it would have weighed 102,000 pounds, its mouth would have contained 300 pieces of baleen, and its tongue alone would’ve weighed 500-800 pounds.
The bowhead is one of only three whale species that spends its entire life in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters (belugas and narwhal are the other “ice whales”), and it has evolved to thrive in the Arctic. Adaptations include that extra-thick blubber as well as the lack of a dorsal fin (which enables it to move through and around ice more effectively) and a uniquely shaped head that allows it to break through ice up to 24 inches thick.² The bowhead can stay submerged for as long as an hour and can also spend a long time under the ice, although it’s unclear where it finds places to breathe. Bowheads do have run-ins with the ice, as evidenced by the accumulated scars found on the skin. Scientists use these marks to identify individual whales.
Bowheads are believed to be one of the longest-lived mammals. There is evidence, based on scientific studies as well as on harpoon points found in harvested animals, that they may live longer than 200 years! Recovered harpoon tips in the photo below, for example, reveal that the whales from which they were retrieved were over 100 years old:
You’d think that such enormous, dynamic creatures would be nearly invulnerable to external threats, but they do face a few, including predation by orcas and humans³ as well as getting trapped under ice. All bowhead whale populations are protected under International Whaling Commission guidelines. They are classified as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is legal, however, for indigenous peoples such as the Iñupiat people to hunt them for subsistence.
The bowhead whale hunt
The Iñupiat have hunted whales for millennia. It’s a sacred tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, and the structure of Iñupiat society is in many ways centered around the preparation, rites, and feasts of the hunt, as well as, of course, the hunt itself. It’s what binds Iñupiats together. “Without the whale,”said Iñupiat Steve Oomittuk, “we wouldn’t be who we are.”
This ancient rite nearly came to an end in 1977 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC), an international body that manages whale populations worldwide, first proposed a moratorium on all whale hunting.4 The Iñupiat felt that their very survival was threatened, and they quickly formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) to advocate for those communities that still participated in subsistence whaling.
The IWC relented, allowing subsistence hunters to take a limited number of whales. The organization assigns new quotas every few years, and the Alaska whaling commission, along with the U.S. Government, allocates the quota between the eleven Eskimo communities that still hunt whales. In 2017, Alaska’s quota of bowhead whales was seventy-five.5 Several rules must be followed: whalers may hunt only for subsistence and not for commercial purposes, and no member of the crew can be paid for participating in the hunt. Also, they cannot kill calves or whales accompanied by calves.
The whale hunt
The Alaskan population of bowhead whales spends the winter in the Bering Sea and then, as the ice breaks up, migrates north to the Arctic Ocean. When the ice returns in the fall, they again head south. The Iñupiat’s hunting seasons coincide with this migration and occur twice a year.
The season may only last a few weeks a year, but villagers spend much of their time preparing for the hunt. The whaling crews are made up strictly of men, but most everyone assists in the preparations. At the top of the to-do list is building the umiak, the traditional hunting boat. The men construct the frame from driftwood, and the women prepare the lining, which consists of seal or walrus skin. The animal skins must be cleaned, dried and then sewn together with caribou sinew. Women also sew new hunting clothes for the hunters, while the men construct tools used in the hunt, such as floats made from seal skin, which will be used to tow the whale carcass back to land, as well as paddles and oars, which are carved from driftwood. Some items, such as explosives and guns, are bought commercially.
Depending upon the time of year, the crews use different types of boats. In the spring, when there’s still adequate ice covering the water off shore, they use the umiak, which is transported to the hunting camp by snowmobile. In the fall, when the sea ice is far off shore, the hunters have to travel longer distances to reach the whales and therefore use motor boats.
The whaling crew is made up of a captain, a harpooner, and several other hunters. The captains are skilled and seasoned whale hunters and must be licensed. Several crews usually participate in each hunt, and during whaling season these men—highly respected members of the Iñupiat community—move to seasonal camps near the water. Their boats are prepped so that, when a whale is sighted, they can slip into the water at a moment’s notice.
Once a whale is spotted, the crews pursue it, and when they are within striking distance (about ten feet), the harpooner makes first contact, launching a harpoon that contains an explosive contact. The target is the base of the skull, where the explosive will kill the whale instantly. If, however, it does not die immediately, the other crew members, who have bomb lance guns, will fire small explosives until the whale is dead. Other crews in the vicinity will also go to the scene and assist in the hunt, the goal being to kill the whale quickly and minimize its suffering.
The Iñupiats believe that the whale chooses its hunters, sacrificing itself for those humans worthy enough to capture it. How does the whale make its choice? By inspecting the undersides of the skin boats, moving toward the brightest ones and avoiding the ones that are darker in color. The boat and gear, as well as the clothing of the hunters, must be new. And the captain must be kind and generous not only to his crew but to all of the members of the community, who depend upon his skills for survival. According to Iñupiat tradition, only the best men will be worthy of receiving a whale’s sacrifice.
All of the hunting crews work together to tow the massive carcass to either ice or land. Then “the word of the successful hunt spreads like crushed ice at breakup time,” and villagers arrive to assist in butchering the whale. Nearly every part will be harvested and utilized, and everyone who assists gets a share. They use curved knives called ulu to strip the creature of its meat, blubber, and organs, which are then hauled home using sleds. And they create tools, toys and art from the baleen and bones. Here are a few pieces of artwork displayed at the Iñupiat Heritage Center:
A single whale may yield tons of meat and blubber, and this will feed many people. A staple of the Iñupiat diet is muktuk, whale skin and blubber cut into strips. It’s usually eaten raw but may also be served breaded and deep-fried or pickled. At the facility where I work, we have several Alaska Native residents (we call them elders). On special occasions, a Native consortium will bring muktuk and other Native dishes for anyone who wishes to partake, and the elders’ faces light up at the sight of muktuk!
The impact of climate change on the Arctic
While climate change is impacting the entire planet, the poles are heating up at a much faster rate than the rest of the world, and Arctic towns such as Utqiaġvik are feeling the effects acutely. “There is nothing abstract or hypothetical about climate change” in Utqiaġvik, writes NOAA. “Climate change is happening—right now—in obvious and dramatic fashion.”
First, the sea ice is shrinking: the amount of ice forming on the Arctic Ocean, including along the Northern Alaskan coast, has been on the decline since the late 1970s, and the current decade has seen an unprecedented amount of shrinkage. According to a 2016 report from the EPA, the September 2016 sea ice expanse was “more than 700,000 square miles less than the historical 1981–2010 average for that month—a difference more than two and a half times the size of Texas.” That’s a lot of missing sea ice.
A warmer atmosphere also means later freezes and earlier thaws, and that, combined with the lessening sea ice, has impacted the Iñupiats’ ability to hunt whales and other marine mammals. Hunters have to travel further across open water to reach their prey, and when the ice is thin, it’s difficult to pull large animals, such as bowheads, onto its surface. And the sigluaq, or ice cellars used to store meat, are becoming non-functional. The cellars, some decades old, were carved deep into the permafrost, and meat would be stored here for months, frozen but also fermenting and taking on the flavors of the earth. Now, the permafrost is melting and the cellars are disintegrating and filling with water, which leads to rotten meat. Residents are turning to traditional freezers, but some feel that the meat doesn’t taste as good as when it’s stored in the sigluaq.
With less ice protecting the coastline, coastal towns are also exposed to brutal fall storms that bring powerful winds and high waves as well as flooding and erosion. The Arctic coastline on which Utqiaġvik sits is eroding at rates of 30-65 feet per year, and the town has had several significant floods recently. And this rate of erosion underscores an even bigger problem: Utqiaġvik and surrounding villages could be underwater by midcentury, with residents forced to move inland.
Ironically, while climate change is negatively impacting not just humans but other Arctic creatures, such as polar bears, there is one animal that is benefiting from a warmer Arctic—the bowhead whale. That’s because the animals on which the bowheads feed are flourishing in ice-free waters, and the whales have an abundance of foods to eat.
As much as touching the Arctic Ocean, the sight of those whale bones, drying on the beach, will stay with me forever. They were starkly beautiful, just like the Arctic itself.
I don’t like the idea of whales being killed. I love these soulful, intelligent creatures, and the mere fact that they exist makes me want to be a better human being. The few occasions where we’ve seen whales in the wild were moments of unfettered joy.
But what the Iñupiat have done over the course of thousands of years is remarkable. They created a thriving society in one of the harshest climates in the world, and like most indigenous cultures, their lifestyle has been both sustainable and demonstrable of the gratitude they feel for the bounteous natural world.
These days, life is still harsh here, but in different ways—the cost of living is incredibly high, and getting affordable foods to the Arctic, especially to the isolated villages around Utqiaġvik, is challenging. Even in these modern times, when most of us pop out to the grocery store whenever we wish, the Iñupiat rely on foraging and hunting for much of their food supply, and this includes the bowhead whale. There’s nothing commercial about their way of life; they follow the practices of their ancestors and are motivated by the need to feed their families. And the food that they harvest provides them with nutrition that is often difficult to afford in the grocery store. Anyone who travels to the Arctic—or Alaska in general, because subsistence hunting happens throughout the state—should understand this.
Climate change may undo it all, and, like many coastal communities around the nation, the towns along the Arctic coast will face some tough decisions. Utqiaġvik will have to figure out how to adapt to the receding coastline, the disappearing ice, and the increased flooding. They might continue to build berms and seawalls that don’t always hold or instead uproot everything and move inland.
These changes to the Arctic landscape will also affect the ancient ways of the people who have lived here for millennia. A move inland would take the Iñupiat away from their food supply, and the ice may recede so much that whale hunting becomes impractical. The whales may also move somewhere else altogether once the ice is gone. Of course, as human beings we have adapted to advancements, setbacks, and upheavals for thousands of years, and in what feels like an era of dizzying changes, I’m hoping that the Iñupiat find a way to face these challenges and come out on the other side.
¹ The term “Eskimo” is still relatively accepted in Alaska but is considered derogatory in Canada and Greenland, and Inuit is used in those countries instead.
Alaska’s Eskimos are further divided into three groups:
- Iñupiat applies to the north and northwest of Alaska
- Yup’ik is used for those in the Alaskan southwest
- Siberian Yupik encompasses those living on St. Lawrence Island near the Bering Strait and includes a small group of Siberian Yupik living in far east Russia.
² According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), bowhead whales have the capacity to break through ice that’s at least 7.9 inches thick, but they also reference Eskimo hunters who have reported seeing whales surface through ice that’s up to 2 feet thick.
³ History of commercial bowhead whale hunting: From the 1700’s to the early 20th century, European and American commercial whalers worked the Arctic waters, indiscriminately hunting bowhead whales. Several characteristics of the bowhead made them attractive targets to commercial whalers. First, they move slowly and can be easily overtaken, and they also float when dead, which has obvious benefits when harvesting an animal that weighs 100,000 pounds or more. The bowhead’s extra-thick blubber also yields thousands of gallons of oil and was valued as a light source and an ingredient in various manufacturing processes before petroleum and electricity made it obsolete. The bowhead’s long baleen was also used to make all sorts of items, including corset stays, umbrella ribs, fishing poles, skirt hoops, carriage springs, and buggy whips.
The Arctic was the last place in which the U.S. whaled, and the last American whale boat was permanently docked in 1928. The U.S. now takes a strong anti-commercial-whaling stance.
4 The IWC and modern whale hunting: As early as the 1930’s, people recognized that centuries of unchecked commercial whaling had decimated many whale populations, and the IWC (International Whaling Commission) was formed in 1946 to manage whale populations and hunting.
The United Nations called for an end to whaling in 1972, and the IWC adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982 that took effect in 1987. A zero catch policy was established (meaning all commercial whaling was banned). Nevertheless, a few countries continue to hunt whales commercially, either in outright defiance of the IWC’s moratorium, as is the case with Norway and Iceland, or under the guise of scientific research. Japan hunts whales using a loophole in IWC regulations that allows the taking of whales for scientific purposes, but they’ve been widely criticized because they’ve provided little in the way of actual research, and the whales they harvest often end up on the market.
5 According to our tour guide Mike, the Natives of Utqiaġvik were allotted 24 bowhead whales this year; they harvested 16 in the spring and therefore can take eight more in the fall hunt, which will likely happen this month.
For further reading:
~~Several compelling articles talk about how Alaskan Arctic communities are struggling as they cope with climate change:
- The BBC: “The forgotten people of the Arctic”
- The Guardian: “Whale hunting in Alaska: Point Hope, the village caught between tradition and climate change”
~~Here’s the latest information about climate change and the Arctic from the Federal Government:
- From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association: 2016 Arctic Report Card visual highlights, summary, and video
- 2016 report on the status of Arctic sea ice from the Environmental Protection Agency
~~Here’s information about bowhead whales from NOAA: Bowhead Whales in Alaska
~~This educational piece, written by several people from Point Hope, Alaska, describes in fascinating detail the Iñupiat whale hunt. It was written for Alaskool, an educational website that offers an Alaska Native-based curriculum.
~~Here’s a story about a teenager who killed a bowhead whale (a rare and honorable thing for a young Iñupiat man to do) and was brutally attacked on social media for it. I worried about him when I read the story because it’s hard enough being a teenager without carrying the burdens of your village on your shoulders, and suicide rates amongst young Alaska Native men are some of the highest in the nation, but he’s holding his head up high.
~~Scientists who study whales flock to the Arctic during whale hunting season. This Atlantic article talks about what Iñupiat hunters have taught scientists about the bowhead whale.
~~The New Bedford Whaling Museum offers a great deal of information about the history of whaling.