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Whaling: Two Miles Out on the Frozen Chukchi Sea

By | May 3, 2012

Two miles from land across the frozen Chukchi Sea, the ocean ice is constantly breaking up and reforming, creating ridges of fragmented ice. The blocks of ice in this photo weigh from hundreds to thousands of pounds, but are so clear they seem to be lit from within.

We had heard that the bowhead whale was out near the point, three miles west of the village of Point Hope. But once out there, we saw few signs of activity. We found a trail leading out onto the ice and began following it in hopes of locating the lead – the place where currents and wind had caused a break in the ice and created open water. That’s where the whaling camp would be.

The ball and pyramid, above, were a familiar trail marker from a previous trek out onto the ice. (Click here to see “Whale Camp: Frozen Sees and Icescapes.”) A frozen sea is not smooth. It is more like an otherworldly, windswept rock and sand desert with the rocks replaced by ice and snow replacing the sand. Note the faint snowmobile tracks curving along the right edge of the photo – that’s the trail.

A mile or more out on the ice, Barbra and our friend, Bill, pause to scan for telltale seabirds that might give away the location of the lead. This is an area frequented by polar bears, hence the gun Bill is carrying. We saw no bears, but did cross a number of fox tracks.

Huge, luminescent fragmants of snow-dusted ice reminded me of the hardtack candy my grandmother used to keep in a crystal bowl.

Leads can open and close in moments, leaving people stranded when a break-off occurs, or generating enough force to place this pickup-truck-sized block of ice precariously atop a mass of fragments. A walk across sea ice gives one a glimpse into the forces behind tectonic plates and events such as earthquakes and the formation of mountain ranges.

We’d walked over five miles by the time we finally found the lead – a fairly narrow band of water hemmed in between two ice sheets. The bow of a seal-skin boat was a sure sign we were nearing the main whaling site.

This is a typical whaling outpost. The seal-skin boat, which is about 17 feet long, is made from hand-stitched bearded seal hide. The boats are light, able to be moved on a moment’s notice. The jumble of ice at the edge of the lead was piled there by natural forces and serves as both wind shield and hunting blind. Note the mass of floating ice out on the water.

At the edge of the lead, the ice does not taper. It is thick and strong, but susceptible to breaking off if the wind shifts.

We had wondered how a whale weighing 10, 30 or even 50 tons is pulled from the water. Two heavy block and tackles are anchored to the ice. The one nearest open water is pegged with a thick metal spike. Fifty yards or so back a second block and tackle is anchored by drilling two holes through the ice and securing the it with a strong harness. Even with the modest mechanical advantage of pulleys, it takes dozens of people pulling for all they’re worth to bring the whale out of the water.

Most of the tools used are hand-crafted. The spade-like implements on the right are butchering tools.

We were very aware of this deep crack in the ice, as, no doubt, were the whaling captain and his crew. While the ice to the right of the crack was sturdy enough to support a house, a shift in the wind could have caused it to suddenly break off.

The whale was small, a young one. Here a ceremonial first piece weighing 30 pounds or more is cut for soup in which the only ingredients are melted snow and fresh whale – a welcome celebratory meal against the cold.

When the pull began, I handed my camera to Barbra and found a place on the rope. The pull started with grunts and chanting, but as the whale begin to emerge from the sea onto the ice, the chanting gave way to whoops of joy and cheers.

The captain (in the blue coat) shared a celebratory hug (above)…

…and then his crew member headed off with a friend for a bowl of hot whale soup. By this time, Bill, Barbra and I had been out on the ice for nearly five hours and we had a two-mile hike back over the sea to land. We were thrilled to have witnessed and taken part in a tradition that goes back to the roots of this Inupiat village.

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About Barbra and Jack Donachy

About Barbra:

I’ve always wanted to be a photographer and a traveler. I have arrived. I get to be outside in one of the most beautiful places in the world… Alaska! In this amazing state, the word “awesome” exists in its intended form. As I travel around Alaska, I am constantly awe-struck.

About Jack:

When I was in third grade, I read Call of the Wild thirteen consecutive times. Not the real version. The version I had was in a volume titled Reader’s Digest Best Loved Books for Young Readers. No matter. For half a year of my life, I was Buck. So began a love affair with a place I’d never seen – Alaska.

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