Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Barrow Whalers and the First Whale of the Season

Barrow, Alaska is a place of surprising controversy. The effects of global warming are as evident here as nearly anywhere on the planet. Off the shore of Barrow, major oil companies like Shell are scouting for new oil reserves so they can begin drilling for profits. Sustenance whaling continues today as it has for thousands of years. Unlike my opinion about global warming and off-shore oil drilling, which are set firmly in stone, my opinions of sustenance whaling were surprisingly not. I'm very, very opposed to the illegal / immoral / disgusting whaling practices of the well publicized Japanese whaling fleets. I initially assumed that I could just extrapolate that feeling to the sustenance whaling of the Inupiat whalers up in Barrow. I was wrong.

If you haven't seen it yet, go back to my last entry and check out the video of the whale being pulled ashore. It's pretty stunning. It's also the first time in my life I've had any real perspective about how large a whale is. Call me a whale nerd, but I've been trying for the past few years to gain that perspective. The whale is pulled ashore already dead, blood pooling out of its enormous mouth as it's dragged. As it disappears from the scene, I took a moment of personal reflection. How did I feel about this?

From Mike's Bi-Polar Adventure

The mood on shore set the tone. People were laughing and smiling. The sun was shining and a rainbow appeared in the distance. Shouts of joy rang through the crowd. This was no funeral, it was a party! I can't say that I ever fully embraced the spirit around me, but I harbored no ill feelings. As I lagged behind a bit, I watched as the whale was transferred to a huge forklift which drove off with the whale to where it would be butchered. There was a trail of blood amongst the tracks of the Caterpillar which dragged it ashore. I chased after the whale, which had just reached the butchering location.

When I arrived, the whale was surrounded by people. Folks were touching its skin and taking pictures of it. I watched as a father set his small daughter on the chin of the whale and snapped a few photos. A few children climbed onto the whale's back, standing on top of it as if they were playing king of the hill. I took off my glove and touched the inside of its mouth, the skin feeling smooth and rubbery but goosebumped. The whale biologists started taking measurements. The whale was a small, male Bowhead whale, between 2 and 3 years old and about 27' long. This was absolutely a baby. According to the Inupiat, the small whales taste better than the bigger, older ones. At the same time, by killing the young whales, the older, childbearing whales live on. To date, Bowheads are the oldest mammals on Earth. Occasionally when a whale is killed, very old spearheads are found embedded in the whale's blubber. Some of those spearheads have been dated back to over 200 years old! If the spearhead is that old, than the whale it was embedded in must be even older. This means that there are possibly whales alive today that were around when Thomas Jefferson was President!

The cutting began. A man with a large knife on the end of a pole stood atop the whale. He started with one long cut down the spine. His knife plunged deep, entirely disappearing within the whale. Next, a series of cuts were made perpendicular to the original cut. These cuts were made from the tail of the whale all the way to where its mouth started. Hooks appeared and started grabbing at the fat, which was being peeled off the body. The blubber was pink and thick, roughly 14 inches including the skin. The men with hooks dragged the slabs of fat away and started piles, each for specific families.

The hunters worked quickly. Once the blubber had been removed, the hunters began cutting the meat from the bones. The tongue was cut out. The intestines, lungs, and heart were removed. Everywhere there was blood. Boots waded through standing blood, over an inch deep in places. Within 2 hours, the whale was indistinguishable. Piles of meat swelled and some of the bigger bones were spread about, the jawbones in particular standing tall in the midst of all the commotion. My camera served as a quiet observer.

All that remained was the blood and the bones. Everything else was taken. The eyeballs were given to the successful whaling captain, serving as a trophy of the hunt. The blubber and the meat were distributed amongst the community. Even the intestines and internal organs were distributed and would be eaten. Little to nothing was wasted. The feast was about to begin.


  1. Great blog post Michael Michael Motorcycle

  2. Mike! This is just absolutely fascinating... thank you so much for sharing!

  3. So, your conclusion was that this doesn't compare to the for-profit whaling practices of Japan. I agree. This is so much more respectful and connected to the spirit of the earth.

  4. What an interesting post! A truly fascinating perspective. Thanks so much for sharing this.