Barrow Whaling

May 23, 2010

 

A traditional umiaq boat awaits the action on the sea ice near a red buoy. The latter is attached to the harpoon. It keeps the animal afloat after the kill. Photos: Faustine Mercer

Our PFS colleague Faustine Mercer was invited along on a whale hunt a few weeks ago. Along with Steve Hastings, Faustine manages CPS science support for National Science Foundation-funded researchers at Barrow, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea coast.  She spends a long stretch of the spring and summer in Barrow, and was on hand when a friend, Josh Bacon, invited her along to witness the hunt. 

“Josh works as a biologist for the Wildlife Department,” Faustine explained. “When a whale is killed, someone from the Department samples tissues and makes measurements of the whale. Because of the whale census also going on and the limited number of staff, he asked me if I wanted to help him.”

Barrow’s traditional culture is based on subsistence principals, which means that the Inuit who live there rely on the land and the ocean primarily for the food they eat. It is one of nine Alaskan communities permitted to harvest the cetaceans by the International Whaling Committee.  Around 50 bowhead whales are caught each year in Alaska.

In Barrow, the whale harvest is a very big deal, an event governed by tradition and the whaling captains who lead the hunt (and the community).  When they arrived at the whaling camp, Josh and Faustine “talked to the whaling captain to make sure he was OK with us being there,” Faustine recalled.  “We got formally invited by him to do whatever we needed to.” 

While preparing to sample and measure the whale, Faustine witnessed the hunters pursuing another whale.

A Barrow, Alaska, whaling crew in a traditional animal-skin-covered boat goes after a humpback whale. Photos: Faustine Mercer

“I was on the sea ice the whole time, right next to the lead. It was a wide flat area after the pressure ridge, perfect for setting camp and hunting.

“We were checking on our whale that was still in the water, attached by the tail when the other whalers jumped in their umiaq (animal skin boat) to follow a whale that had just passed them. That happened right in front of me, less than 100m away.”

Later, the activity returned to the whale Faustine wanted to examine. “It took almost three hours to pull it up a ramp that the crew (20 people and five snowmachines) made on the ice. People from other crews helped also, but it was a fairly small number. Once the whale was on the ramp, they put some blocking tackles together, hooked it up to the tail, and people and snowmobiles started to pull.”

About 20 people helped to pull the whale out of the water.

As soon as the whale was landed, “butchering started right away, so we had only a few minutes to take our measurements. They cut a piece of blubber right away and gave it to the women so they could start making unalik (boiled skin and blubber) to give to everyone who was helping.”

The butchering portion was an efficient operation orchestrated by the whaling captain, Faustine said. When it was over, “the captain got to choose which part he wanted. Then, everyone who helped with butchering got a share.  A woman took people’s names and the blubber and meat was divided up on the ice according to the list. They used everything except for the guts and eyes (we actually took the eye balls to know the exact age). Someone cut the liver skin off too, as they use it to make drums. In less than three hours, the whale had totally disappeared.”

Later, when it was ready, Faustine tried her share of unalik—the boiled skin and blubber of the fresh whale that is a tradition of the harvest. “The unalik tasted kind of like fish, not bad at all, though fat as expected. The texture of the skin after being boiled is totally different than expected, as fresh it feels rubbery and looks chewy.

“People were laughing and happy, so I can say it was a celebration!”

For more on traditional hunting, visit http://www.nativetech.org/inupiat/index.html


Surviving the Break-up

January 19, 2010

Scientific and traditional expertise find mutual benefit in sea-ice study

By Marcy Davis

Walk on water: PI Hajo Eicken at the Barrow sea ice mass balance site in June 2008, during the melt season. All photos courtesy Matt Druckenmiller

Unlike most other solids on Earth, ice floats. As water freezes, it expands to include lots of airy pockets, which means that ice is less dense as a solid than as a liquid. Fresh water ice is relatively dense and impervious while sea ice, ice that freezes directly from mineral-rich ocean water, develops interconnected sand-to-finger-sized channels that help control its decay during warm months. Through the Seasonal Ice Zone Observing Network (SIZONET), one of about 35 National Science Foundation-funded projects in the Arctic Observing Network, Hajo Eicken, research associate Chris Petrich, and graduate student Matthew Druckenmiller (all from University of Alaska, Fairbanks, UAF), study the small-scale properties contributing to the formation and disintegration of arctic coastal sea ice. In addition to gaining a better understanding of the role of sea ice in the global climate system, Eicken’s team hopes to help coastal communities which rely on sea ice–like Barrow, Alaska–by forecasting break-up, the time of year when seasonal ice begins to melt.

Off the village of Barrow, BASC employee Michael Donovan navigates a boat to a grounded ice foe in July 2008 so that Matt Druckenmiller can take an ice core.

Off the village of Barrow, BASC employee Michael Donovan navigates a boat to a grounded ice foe in July 2008 so that Matt Druckenmiller can take an ice core.

“Sea ice provides many animals, humans included, a surface on which to live, travel, and hunt. We want to understand how sea ice decays from a materials perspective,” explains Eicken. “We also want this information to be useful to local communities for whom break-up is important for hunting and whaling. We spend time trying to understand how people in Barrow use the sea ice in their daily life so that we can define and redefine our models and projections for how the ice will behave.”

Eicken’s group studies the seasonal sea-ice zone, which includes land-fast ice (ice that freezes to the coastal shoreline) and drift ice (ice that floats on the water surface). In contrast to multiyear ice, which does not melt in the summer, seasonal ice builds up during winter months and melts in summer months. This means that seasonal ice is far less stable. From a human perspective, then, break-up can be dangerous because how the ice melts varies from year to year and progresses over the season.

UAF sea ice team conducting ice thickness measurements and ridge surveys in the landfast ice near Barrow in June 2007.

Break-up begins with melting on the sea-ice surface. If the meltwater is retained, it pools on the surface. Because of the darker color, the ice surface ponds absorb heat and create a positive feedback for even more melting.

“We study seasonal ice rather than multiyear ice because we understand far less about seasonal ice. The forces which control breakup are highly variable – sunshine and warmer temperatures, tides, and storms all contribute, but to what degree remains less clear. But from a Search and Rescue perspective, it is very important to the Barrow community to have as much information as possible during break-up, especially since the coastal land-fast ice and ice drifts have become much more unstable over the last 20 years,” Eicken says.

Chris Petrich and BASC Bear Guard Herman Ahsoak measuring level ice thickness near a grounded ridge in June 2007.

Eicken, Petrich and Druckenmiller use satellite data to map ice conditions along the coastline near Barrow where locals use established ice trails for hunting and whaling during break-up. Although satellite data provides a decent regional picture, the relatively low resolution equates to substantial real-life discrepancy. In addition to field campaigns aimed at measuring temperature and albedo of ice surface ponds and ice thickness, indigenous ice expert and ex whaling captain Joe Levitt provides daily ice observations to help integrate and ground-truth satellite and field data or break-up forecasts.

These are especially useful to local communities during spring whaling season, when hunters establish camps on the sea ice. “Matt [Druckenmiller] created maps showing ice thickness along whaling trails on the land-fast ice off Barrow. These maps have proven useful for the community who might have as many as 200 people spread out over a 20-mile area or more during whaling season. This is a big safety issue for them,” says Eicken. “We’re posting satellite and radar images along with sea ice trail maps on the Internet and holding workshops with folks in Barrow both to educate them about how to use these data as well as to help us refine our forecasting models.”

The sea ice trail maps give Barrow-area whalers important information about ice thickness around their sea-ice trails.


A Special Homecoming

October 19, 2009
Sitting with researcher Aaron Fox, Inupiat elder Martha Aiken peruses a photo from 1946 and recognizes her husband, Robert, at a young age. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

Sitting with researcher Aaron Fox, Iñupiat elder Martha Aiken peruses a photo from 1946 and recognizes her husband, Robert, at a young age. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

When Iñupiat elder Martha Aiken first laid eyes on the digital rendition of the aged photograph, she squinted her eyes and examined the teenager in the image. From her kitchen table in Barrow, AK., with the assist of a magnifying glass, the proud native woman, then 81 years old, nodded her head in confirmation. “That’s my Robert,” she declared as her eyes welled with tears.

"Her Robert," Robert Aiken, circa 1944. Photo: The Boulton Collection

Her Robert. Robert Aiken, left, circa 1946. Photo: The Boulton Collection

The Robert under the looking glass was the man who became her husband. Preserved in a photograph taken in 1946, his youthful smile and good looks mesmerized their observer, and Aiken momentarily lost herself in remembrance.

That was 2008, several months after researchers Dr. Aaron Fox (Music, Columbia University) and Dr. Chie Sakakibara (postdoctoral research fellow, The Earth Institute, Columbia University) first traveled to Barrow, Alaska, to conduct fieldwork for their NSF-supported project: “Community-Partnered Repatriation of Iñupiat Music.” They arrived bearing roughly 130 photographs and about 120 recorded songs collected more than six decades ago by Laura Boulton, an American ethnomusicologist.

nupiaq elder Fannie Akpik and Inupiaq educator Jana Hacharek reading through Laura Boulton's account (Music Hunter) on Barrow, Alaska. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

Iñupiaq elder Fannie Akpik and Iñupiaq educator Jana Hacharek reading through Laura Boulton's account (Music Hunter) of Barrow, Alaska. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

They sought entry into the lives of the tribal elders. Wanting to respectfully return the music and the images to their original owners, the two academics (Fox is an anthropologist of music and Sakakibara is a geographer) often found themselves in the kitchens and sitting rooms of the likes of Aiken, painstakingly reviewing each image, provoking memories, and collecting a rich and deep oral history.

An alternate copy of the photo reproduced in Laura Boulton’s 1968 book The Music Hunter (Doubleday).  Pictured, from left to right, are Rodger Ahalik, Otis Ahkivgak, Willie Sielak, Guy Okakok, and Alfred Koonaloak. Photo: Smithsonian/Folkways Records FW00044, 1955)

An alternate copy of the photo reproduced in Laura Boulton’s 1968 book The Music Hunter (Doubleday). Pictured, from left to right, are Rodger Ahalik, Otis Ahkivgak, Willie Sielak, Guy Okakok, and Alfred Koonaloak. Photo: Smithsonian/Folkways Records FW00044, 1955)

“Many of the elders we interview were young when the recordings were made and have knowledge of these art and verbal traditions,” said Fox. “When they hear the recordings of their ancestors or see the pictures, it stimulates their memory in a really powerful way.”

Fox and Sakakibara have delved into the controversial world of repatriation with the goal of creating a new model that promotes collaboration between institutional archives and Native communities. By working closely with members of the Iñupiat community to describe, interpret, translate, and identify the historical features of Boulton’s material, they aim to gain insights into the geographical, historical and ethnomusicological problems and questions that extend beyond the materials. By treating the archives as a basis for building relationships and developing dialogues with members of the native communities, they hope to develop a ubiquitous model to assist in other repatriation projects.

“Photographs, like music recordings, are duplicable, so the underlying object is replicable and the repatriation is straightforward,” said Fox. “But it’s important the rights to the archives be restored to the community, and that we help the tribe develop consensus of how to maintain jurisdiction.”

The disbursement of heritage resources can be political and contentious, but reaching agreement with the Iñupiat has been “remarkably successful,” Fox said. To that end, the material has already begun working its way into the school curriculums and local cultural events. Fox and Sakakibara have presented the recordings to numerous schoolchildren and are working with teachers to develop future uses for these materials in the classroom.

Visiting Ipaalook Elementary School in Barrow to talk to pupils about Laura Boulton and historical recordings. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

Visiting Ipaalook Elementary School in Barrow to talk to pupils about Laura Boulton and historical recordings. Photo: Chie Sakakibara

And a group of young people formed a traditional dance group to learn and perform the songs on the recordings.  This group, called Taġiuġmiut dancers, which means “People of the Sea,” includes Riley Sikvayugak and Vernon Elavgak, two descendants of Joseph Sikvayugak, one of the primary performers on Boulton’s recordings. So far the group has had success, including winning first place at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.

Dancers re-enacting the 1946 songs at Nalukataq (Whale Feast), June 2008. Photo: Chie Sakakibara)

Dancers re-enacting the 1946 songs at Nalukataq (Whale Feast), June 2008. Photo: Chie Sakakibara)

“There is no cookbook or single prescription for how to do this kind of thing [repatriation],” Fox said. “You can set goals, but the important thing is to treat this as a relationship not a transaction. It’s a restoration of cultural resources rather than just a return of something.”

The archived music recordings date back to Boulton’s visit in 1946, during which her assistant John Klebe also shot photographs. However, some of the images are clearly not from the season she visited (October, 1946), and Fox said he believes it is likely those photographs were taken by Marvin Peter, a local, respected Iñupiaq photographer of the period.

“We presume he would have given them to Boulton, as that would be a very Iñupiat thing to do,” said Fox.  “We don’t know this for sure. We do know he was among the people she and John Klebe photographed while they were there.”

Fox and Sakakibara will return to Barrow at Thanksgiving to continue their field work, which has NSF funding for two additional years. They also hope to hand over the publication rights to the Iñupiat recordings to the tribe within the next year.


Unearthing The Past In Nuvuk

September 7, 2009
These carved artifacts were recovered at Nuvuk. Photo courtesy of Exporatorium.

These carved artifacts were recovered at Nuvuk. Photo courtesy of Exploratorium. http://icestories.exploratorium.edu/dispatches

Most archaeological digs occur in areas off limits to the public, in relatively stable conditions, with teams of experienced professionals.

The Nuvuk Archaeological Project (NAP), taking place outside of Barrow, Alaska, is unlike most.

This excavation of an ancient Thule cemetery is taking place in rapidly eroding gravel whose instability threatens to dump buried bodies into the ocean. In addition, although trained archaeologists lead the project, the excavation crew consists predominantly of North Slope high school students. Finally, the cemetery site is located on Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation (UIC) land in an area open to the public and used for recreation.

Waves crash along the shore near the Nuvuk Archaeological site, where researchers are excavating bodies from an ancient cemetery. Photo courtesy Anne Jensen.

Waves crash along the shore near the Nuvuk Archaeological site, where researchers are excavating bodies from an ancient cemetery. Photo courtesy Anne Jensen.

“The area is far enough out of town that people are going to go out there and do what they are going to do, unless you post a guard, which isn’t possible in this scenario,” said Anne Jensen, Principal Investigator and an employee of UIC Science LLC. “So we move as efficiently as possible.”

Those nuances (unstable soil, a young and inexperienced crew and the public access) did not dissuade Jensen from investigating the Nuvuk site, which has proven to be an archaeologically rich area ripe with history lessons. Since 2005, Jensen and her team have been excavating the previously unknown burial site with funding from the Department of Education’s Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations (ECHO) and the National Science Foundation.  Since launching the project, the team has excavated 73 burials, from which a related project is recovering and analyzing DNA samples. In addition, they have discovered an Ipiutak occupation of Nuvuk, recovered and cleaned artifacts and obtained radiocarbon dates and analyzed driftwood, even providing DNA samples for a study of arctic wood fungi.

They're not digging for sand castles. North Slope high school students get the unique experiential educational experience of working on a professional excavation team at the Nuvuk dig site.

They're not digging for sand castles. North Slope high school students get the unique experiential educational experience of working on a professional excavation team at the Nuvuk dig site. Photo courtesy Anne Jensen.

Driftwood provides important DNA evidence that scientists analyze at a lab in Salt Lake City—after it's carefully collected from the beach samples, of course. Photo courtesy Anne Jensen.

Driftwood provides important DNA evidence that scientists analyze at a lab in Salt Lake City—after it's carefully collected from the beach samples, of course. Photo courtesy Anne Jensen.

“Our goals are two-fold,” said Jensen. “First, we want to keep the bodies from falling into the ocean. Then we wanted to find out as much as we can about this archaeological resource before it falls into the water. When we first began it was primarily a data recovery thing. Now we are learning from where, and how, and why, and when did people come through here?” Read the rest of this entry »


Eating Like A Whale

August 4, 2009

Dr. Carin Ashjian of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a team will head out to the oceanic shelf near Barrow, AK., in mid-August for the second field season in a two-year study on the zooplankton that nourishes migrating bowhead whales each year.

WHOI researcher Phil Alatalo motors out to the Annika Marie, a small research vessel chartered for the zooplankton study led by Carin Ashjian. This picture courtesy of Wood's Hole Image of the Day.

WHOI's Phil Alatalo motors out to the Annika Marie, from which zooplankton research led by Carin Ashjian takes place. Source Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Hoping to understand the dynamics and oceanographic characteristics that provide a copius buffet of nutrient-rich organisms on the shelf near Barrow, the team also intends to gather enough information to understand the potential impact of climate change on the feeding environment. Specifically, they are interested in investigating the impact of melting sea ice and variability in Pacific water.

Steve Okkenen from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and Phil Alatalo from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution deploy the Acrobat, an instrument towed by the boat to measure water temperature, salinity, and fluorescence. Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Steve Okkonen from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and Phil Alatalo deploy the Acrobat, an instrument towed by the boat to measure water temperature, salinity, and fluorescence. Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Reached at her office, Ashjian was remarkably low-key for one about to embark on field work that will put her in the presence of whales, freezing ocean, and millions of tiny creatures (zooplankton), which have been called some of the most ecologically important aquatic species. Rather, she cautioned that her work was still in the data-gathering phase.

Bowhead whales feed on zooplankton, especially copepods and euphausiids or krill. To feed efficiently, baleen whales such as the bowhead whale and the Northern Atlantic Right whale must feed in locations where their zooplankton prey are found in abundance.

Barrow hunters prepare to bring in a whale. Results from the research may help scientists predict how climate change may affect the Arctic shelf ecosystem--and may in turn impact subsistence whaling by Inuit living in the area. Source: Winter reflections blog

Barrow hunters prepare to bring in a whale. Results from the research may help scientists predict how climate change may affect the Arctic shelf ecosystem--and may in turn impact subsistence whaling by Inuit living in the area. Source: Winter reflections blog

The shelf near Barrow is a critical feeding area for whales, and it is also a complex ecosystem whose oceanographic and atmospheric conditions impact the composition, distribution, and availability of plankton prey. To better understand the dynamics, the team will deploy three moorings in August to collect information on water currents and temperature, mammal sounds (whale vocalizations, for example), and the quantity of zooplanton present. They also will analyze ice cover via satellite imagery and analyze the gut contents of whales harvested during spring and summer hunts.

“We don’t really look at whales in the sense that someone who studies whale behavior does,” said Dr. Ashjian. “We’re really looking for the plankton.”


Polar Bear Project

July 31, 2009

By Emily Stone

This 220 lb, one-year-old cub is still with its mother. Photo: John Whiteman

This 220 lb, one-year-old cub is still with its mother. Photo: John Whiteman

You’ve probably seen a photo or video of a lumbering polar bear, seemingly forlorn, stuck on a small piece of ice in what looks like an endless stretch of sea. The animals have become the symbol for what’s at risk if the arctic sea ice continues to retreat each summer. But for all their emotional punch, very little is known about how the bears are coping with the dramatic changes in their habitat.

A group of researchers from the University of Wyoming is looking for some answers among the polar bears on the North Slope of Alaska. These bears are forced to decide between staying on land during the summer or following the ice edge north, past their normal feeding grounds to an area of deep ocean that may not hold much food. The researchers want to know what the polar bears are eating and how much they’re exerting themselves if they stay on land versus head north.

The project’s main question is: “Are they able to eat a lot during the summer, and if they’re not eating a lot, how well are they able to fast,” explains John Whiteman, a Ph.D. student on the project run by co-principal investigators Hank Harlow and Merav Ben-David.

Dr. Henry Harlow, Dr. Merav Ben-David, and John Whiteman (left to right) with an adult male polar bear who has been sedated for measurements. They’re sitting in front of a temporary windbreak (to make measurements easier) on sea ice off the northern coast of Alaska in October 2008. Photo: John Whiteman

Dr. Henry Harlow, Dr. Merav Ben-David, and John Whiteman (left to right) with an adult male polar bear who has been sedated for measurements. They’re sitting in front of a temporary windbreak (to make measurements easier) on sea ice off the northern coast of Alaska in October 2008. Photo: John Whiteman

The team is in the second year of the two-year project, which is based out of Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. They’re using a combination of blood, muscle, fat and breath samples, which reveal what and how often the animals are eating, along with GPS tracking collars and internal body temperature and activity monitors that the bears wear during the summers. Together the information will show how the bears on land are faring versus those that head north.

Read the rest of this entry »


UP

July 22, 2009

Postcard from Barrow: Nalukataq

Barrow 101

Photos: Tracy Sheely unless otherwise noted

Barrow turned out (and up) a few weeks ago to celebrate the spring whale harvest wherein two crews brought in four whales total. The traditional Iñupiaq festival, called Nalukataq, is a thanksgiving for the harvest, so central to a traditional Inuit subsistence community’s way of life. During the day-long fete the community honors the whalers who bring in the bounty, feast on caribou and goose soup and whale delicacies of all kinds, and have – you know – a whale of a good time. In addition, each family receives its share of frozen whale meat (called quaq) and whale blubber and skin (muktuk) from the spring harvest.

This photo, from Fairbanks Open Radio, documents Barrow’s June Nalukataq. The two whaling crews who brought in the whales fly their flags, center, and the community gives thanks for the harvest. Later, everyone enjoys the blanket toss and dancing in the gym. Photo: David Koester

This photo, from Fairbanks Open Radio, documents Barrow’s June Nalukataq. The two whaling crews who brought in the whales fly their flags, center left, and the community gives thanks for the harvest. Later, everyone enjoys the blanket toss and dancing in the gym. Photo: David Koester

A highlight of the Nalukataq is the blanket toss. Community members gather around a seal-skin trampoline, and toss all willing high into the air. Traditionally, the whaling captains go first, and they throw candy and other treats to watching children.  Good times indeed.

The community blanket toss. Photos: Tracy Sheely unless otherwise noted

The community blanket toss.

Up!

Up!