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Mixed success for Arctic Alaska whalers

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

As summer sun reaches long across the Arctic, whaling crews on the North Slope have met their spring season with mixed success.

In Point Hope, a period of good conditions in early May led to a strong bowhead whaling season for the community

"The season went very well," said Point Hope Mayor Steve Oomittuk. "We got a total of six whales."

The community welcomed visitors from all over the Arctic for their spring feast, a three-day festival that started June 9.

"It was a good feast," Oomittuk said. "We had a lot of people from Barrow come in. Noatak, Kotzebue, Kivalina -- you name it they were here."

The six Point Hope whales ranged in size from 27 feet to 50 feet, with five of them being caught in a three-day period in early May.

Successful captains include Jacob Lane Sr., Clark Lane Sr., Herbert Kinneeveauk Jr., Rex Rock Sr., and Michael Guzroyluk Sr. -- who landed two.

The last whale landed was a 50-footer struck in early June. Deteriorating ice conditions made for a challenging harvest, Oomittuk said.

"We couldn’t pull it all the way up,” Oomittuk said. “The ice was rotten, and the ice kept breaking.”

The crew was able to cut up and recover about three quarters of the whale before having to retreat for safety, Oomittuk said, leaving only the head.

“Everyone made it back safely,” he said. After that, the work of processing and preserving the bountiful harvest came — along with the celebration of a successful season.

“We had a lot of people come in and it was a good turn out,” Oomittuk said. “The weather was a little foggy but it was still pretty nice out there. The three-day celebration went real well.”

In Barrow, it’s still unclear whether there will be a spring whaling festival.

“It’s kind of a rough season for them,” Oomittuk said. “We were lucky to get those five whales in those three days when it was open. Then it closed up on us and didn’t open up for quite a while.”

Crews in Barrow and several other North Slope villages have yet to land a whale. Lingering ice and strong winds out of the west have kept crews waiting for the majority of the spring.

“If there are no whales caught, there will not be any Nalukataqs (Whaling Festivals),” said Barrow Captain Herman Ahsoak of the Quvan Crew.

Ahsoak and his crew have been waiting, alongside the rest of the Barrow crews, for the ice to clear enough for them to hunt safely.

“Barrow has only had a few little ponds of water all Spring,” Ahsoak said. “There was one day where a crew chased a whale but were not successful because it dove back under all the ice and travelled north.”

While Ahsoak and his fellow captains are no strangers to the Arctic’s continually shifting ice patterns, a Barrow spring without a whale is a rare thing indeed.

“Since I can remember, I do not recall a year where Barrow did not successfully land a spring whale,” Ahsoak said. “Last time this happened was back in 1977? When we were imposed with a Moratorium by the (International Whaling Commission.) I was 13 years old at the time, but that is only from my memory.”

This time, however, it’s not man but nature that has prevented the crews from hunting this favorite and traditional source of food and celebration.

“The current ice conditions are dangerous in a lot of places,” Ahsoak said, “because there was a lot of young ice all winter long, which by now have already melted through to the water.”

Those unstable ice conditions have been compounded by odd spring wind patterns.

“There has been west or southwest winds all spring long,” Ahsoak said, “something I’ve never witnessed before, and that is part of the reason the ice has stayed. Usually we need a good east wind and for the ocean current to flow south at the same time to take the ice out.”

Should the ice stay, Ahsaok said, the North Slope can expect a long and cold winter for the 2013-2014 season.

Above all it is a sad moment for the community to not have the food they depend on, or the festival that many all over Alaska look forward to.

“It would be hard for all of us who depend on the bowhead whale for nourishment throughout the whole winter,” Ahsoak said.

In the past, communities that have had successful seasons have been able to share maktak and meat with those who did not. That tradition is connected to core Inupiaq values of sharing, but is often complicated by the expense of shipping large quantities of anything in rural Alaska.

This is a time for relying on one’s faith and community to get them through tough seasons, Ahsoak said.

“There is a time for everything under heaven,” Ahsoak said, “and this is one of those years that we should all draw closer to God to really seek him while he may be found.”

Point Hope has one strike left in their quota, but they have moved on to summer hunts for the most part.

“We’re hunting bearded seal and the walrus right now,” Oomittuk said.                             

But if a whale comes up, he said, crews won’t hesitate to act on that last strike.

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com