Savoonga harvests its second whale of the season

A whaling crew from Savoonga landed its second bowhead of the season this week. The St. Lawrence Island community has been working non-stop to haul the whale out of the icy waters, harvest its meat, and distribute it around the village.

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Savoonga’s second whale of the season, harpooned by whaling captain Carl Pelowook Jr. (Photo courtesy of Brianne Gologergen)
Savoonga’s second whale of the season, harpooned by whaling captain Carl Pelowook Jr. (Photo courtesy of Brianne Gologergen)

For the last few weeks whaling crews have been camped out on the southwest side of St. Lawrence Island. Elvin Noongwook was on the crew that landed Savoonga’s first whale in 1972.

Sitting around his kitchen table, the elder said they’ve been going to the same spot ever since.

“We call the whaling camp ‘Powooliak.’” Noongwook explained. “That’s where we’re doing whaling now in [the] springtime.”

On March 27 of this year, Carl Pelowook Jr. landed the first whale of the season and the earliest in Savoonga’s whaling history. Warmer ocean temperatures and stronger winds from the north make it easier for whalers to start their hunts earlier.

A week later on April 5, Pelowook and his crew, which includes Michael Kralik and Nathaniel O’Connor, harpooned their second bowhead. With the help of eight other boats, they hauled the whale up to shore and got to work.

Elvin Noongwook says nothing goes to waste.

People pulling the whale out of the icy waters on the south side of St. Lawrence Island. Photo courtesy of Brianne Gologergen.
People pulling the whale out of the icy waters on the south side of St. Lawrence Island. (Photo courtesy of Brianne Gologergen)

“We take everything from the head to the flukes, baleen, and the meat.”

The work is non-stop. A steady stream of snowmachiners travel back and forth between camp for days, delivering processed whale and swapping out tired workers with well-rested ones.

Brianne Gologergen is a Health Aide at Savoonga’s clinic. She made the trip out to camp to watch it all unfold.

Gologergen said, along with the days it takes to harvest a whale, it’s also pretty costly for the community to travel the 38 miles to camp.

“There’s the fuel for the boat, grub for camp for a couple of weeks, [and] fuel for your snowmachine,” Gologergen explained.

But, she said, the taste of the fresh whale makes it all worth it.

“It was so yummy,” Gologergen said.

Whale being separated out to distribute throughout the community of Savoonga. (Photo courtesy of Brianne Gologergen)
Whale being separated out to distribute throughout the community of Savoonga. (Photo courtesy of Brianne Gologergen)

Even after the meat makes it into people’s mouths, the work doesn’t let up. George Noongwook is Elvin Noongwook’s cousin. He was also on Savoonga’s first whaling crew and now acts as the community’s commissioner on the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

He says prep for the whaling season starts thousands of miles from home.

“In order for us to go whaling we first need to go to Washington DC.” Noongwook explained.

Noongwook said there’s a lot of politicking needed to make sure Alaska’s eleven whaling communities can feed themselves throughout the year.

“It takes a lot of coordination,” he said, adding “it takes a lot of people to work together to achieve that goal… it’s a lot of work, a lot of leg-work.”

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Emily Russell, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage
Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.