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What Happens on a Traditional Whale Hunt in Alaska

Nature By
BARROW, AK: EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS PICTURE MAY NOT BE USED TO PROMOTE ANTI-WHALING CAMPAIGNS. Members of the ABC whaling crew take part in the butchering of a bowhead whale in the spring of 2003 in the outskirts of Barrow, Alaska. In the United States northernmost city of Barrow, the Inupiat people keep their traditions alive by hunting on small seal skin-made boats equipped with old style harpoons. The hunt of the bowhead whale is the basis of this people's culture, happening every year on spring and autumn. Still like their ancestors did, the Inupiat never sell the meat of their prey, instead they share it between those who helped hunting, towing and cutting the animal. Sited in Alaska's North Slope Borough, by the frozen shores of the Artic Ocean, Barrow is as small city housing a culturally immense and brotherly people. (Photo by Luciana Whitaker/LatinContent/Getty Images)
Members of the ABC whaling crew after a successful traditional whale hunt for bowhead whale in the spring of 2003 in the outskirts of Barrow, Alaska. (Luciana Whitaker/LatinContent/Getty Images)


Kivalina, Alaska lies above the Arctic Circle. The natives used to catch a bowhead whale every three or four years. Then they went through a streak when they weren’t so successful. Before they knew it, it had been over 20 years since the last catch. Life had been growing more difficult in other ways as well. Kivalina has just over 400 residents and none of them have running water. Beyond this, there isn’t a dentist or doctor within a hundred miles. Finally, storms have literally been washing it away: residents want to relocate the town but no agency will pay the $400 million it would cost to do so. Catching a whale wouldn’t solve all their problems, but it would be a much-needed victory for the community.

September 30, 2007. Kivalina, AK. From the air, Kivalina looks like a giant tadpole. The Chukchi Sea on the left is steadily eating away at the shorline. Some in the village of about 400 residents say it's global warming and the town must be moved before the sea washes it away. (Photo by Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Aerial view of Kivalina, Alaska in 2007 . (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)


Saki Knafo went to Kivalina to cover a whale hunt for Men’s Journal. Kivalina still uses traditional Eskimo methods for the hunt. Knafo writes:

“To catch a whale, Eskimo hunters hitch their sleds and a small boat to their snowmobiles. Then they travel over the ice that stretches across the sea for miles. They head out in the spring, when the plates of ice begin to break apart, and drive until they come to a crack or a channel — an uiniq. There they set up a big canvas tent and wait —for days, sometimes weeks — ready to jump into the boat, harpoon gun loaded, at the first glimpse of a whale coming up for air.”

In addition to often being unsuccessful, the method is risky. Thin ice could collapse, the harpoon gun could explode, you could have a fatal encounter with a polar bear or a walrus. (Not to mention whales are powerful, potentially dangerous animals.)

Yet Kivalina keeps trying. When asked why they continue this tradition, town whaling captain Reppi Swan says simply, “It’s who we are.”

To read the full article, click here. Below, watch a feature on a native Alaskan whale hunt.