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Remote Savoonga lands 4 whales as Arctic Alaska hunts get going

Alex DeMarban
Wales became an important whaling center due to its location along whale migratory routes, and it was once the region's largest and most prosperous village, with more than 500 residents.
Photo courtesy: Goldie Crisci
Traditionally, the hunter who brings news of a landed whale also brings a piece of muktuk as evidence.
Photo courtesy: Goldie Crisci
Bowhead whales remain endangered, but their numbers are on the rise. A federal exemption allows 11 Alaska villages to hunt the bowhead, including Wales, where crews venture onto the Bering Strait each spring.
This bowhead whale was landed by Wales, Alaska, hunters in April 2012.
Photo courtesy: Goldie Crisci

Whalers across Arctic Alaska are gearing up to land their first catch of the year in an ancient ritual governed by the vast stretches of sea ice that cradle the coast each spring. But one village may already be hanging up its harpoons for the season. Savoonga, some 700 miles west of Anchorage on St. Lawrence Island, has landed four bowhead whales and lost two.

That leaves two strikes for 2013 that whaling captains will probably save for the fall season, said an exhausted George Noongwook late Friday morning.

"I'm just back from whaling camp, so I'm pretty tired. But happy tired," said the whaling captain and chair of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

He'd been out on the water, Thursday, when the Yup'ik Eskimo community of 700 landed its fourth whale. He was also helping butcher the meat and muktuk that feeds villagers throughout the year.

"There is a lot of cooperation and camaraderie and sharing, so that type of thing is real good for your whole being," he said.

But the hunting may not be over for the village. One of the two struck-and-lost whales has drifted too far away to be recovered. But crews are still on the lookout for the second, said Noongwook. The meat beneath the muktuk -- the pink blubber that's thicker than sofa cushions -- has gone bad by now. But it's not too late to salvage the surrounding blubber. 

"It normally takes about three days for it to pop up, and they're still looking," said Noongwook, 64. "We feel pretty bad when we lose a whale, so we try our darndest to land every whale we get."

Last year, Savoonga's whalers landed all eight whales they'd struck with bomb-tipped harpoons, including one that had initially disappeared but was later recovered. Strikes are defined by federal regulators as "hitting a whale with a lance, harpoon or explosive device."

This year, the first lost whale sank as crews tried setting up a tow rope to haul it back to the village. The second whale sank due to a failure of the powerful penthrite grenade attached to the harpoon, Noongwook said.

The six strikes Savoonga has used come off the 75 annual strikes awarded Alaska bowhead whalers in 11 communities by the International Whaling Commission. Generally, about three quarters of the whales struck each year in Alaska are landed. In 2011, for example, 51 whales were struck. Of that, 38 were landed and 13 disappeared.

The International Whaling Commission has called for improved hunting efficiency to reduce the number of lost whales. As a result, whaling crews in Alaska are trying to replace their traditional black powder bombs with penthrite grenades that are said to kill whales quicker and more humanely.

But the specially made penthrite bombs are still being perfected for bowhead whaling. They don't always work properly, and can even be dangerous, detonating early.     

"It's a learning curve," Noongwook said. "The (premature detonations) were fortunately in the water, otherwise there would be people hurt."

Whaling is also moving steadily ahead on the west side of St. Lawrence Island. Gambell, another village of 700 about 40 miles west of Savoonga, has landed two whales, according to reports.

Further to the north winter still hasn't loosened its grip on coastlines, and whaling has yet to get into full swing. The village of Wales about 100 miles northwest of Nome hasn't seen many bowhead whales or leads in the ice this spring, putting the whaling season a bit behind schedule, said Winton Weyapuk Jr.

The 62-year-old and three nephews piled into an 18-foot Lunde and ventured out for the first time of the year Wednesday night, scouting a newly discovered five-mile-long lead in the sea ice for any sign of the giant that can weigh more than 30 Dodge Ram trucks.

"We've been waiting several weeks for it to open," he said. "It finally did and that was our first chance." 

Weyapuk spotted a couple of seals and some eider ducks, but no bowheads.

"There's no whales going by, so they must be migrating further out between here and Russia," he said. "Early in April we saw a few whales. Since then, we haven't seen any."

"We do have ice hanging out," said Becki Legatt, an assistant sea ice meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. Sea ice from Wales to Shishmaref -- on the north side of the Seward Peninsula -- is hard against the shore. But it's not lingering longer than usual. A handful of other whaling communities are shore-bound for now, too.

"It's nothing completely out of blue," Legatt said, noting that shorefast ice is affected by factors ranging from sea currents and wind patterns to temperature. "Breakup happens, but it won't be identical every year."

The sea ice could linger, or not. A high-pressure pattern set to bring cold weather in the coming days could delay whaling longer. On the other hand, massive ice floes sailing in from the cooler regions of the Chukchi Sea could grind at the shorefast ice, speeding its demise.

Grace Leavitt, administrative manager for the Barrow-based Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, said on Wednesday that she'd heard that only Gambell and Savoonga had landed whales.

About this time last year across Alaska, 13 whales had been landed

In Barrow at the top of Alaska, where the spring season can last until June, whalers are gearing up, Leavitt said. They're hacking trails to areas where the ice might open up, creating the open-water corridors where whales are spotted, said Grace Leavitt, the commission's administrative manager.

For now, the Arctic Ocean stretches endlessly white around the hub city where the commission's offices are headquartered, and where most Alaska whalers live.

"If you want to get a look, look up Barrow sea ice web cam," she said. "It's pretty quiet so far."

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com