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

Sifting Through the Sand for Clues of Prehistoric Inuit Life

September 16, 2009

In the quest to discover more about prehistoric human development and settlement in and around the Bering Strait, scientists have long probed archaeological sites in Northwest Alaska in search of artifacts, architecture, and other clues for how the Inuit culture evolved. Perhaps the most well-known site has been Point Hope, Alaska, one of the oldest known occupied human settlements in North America.

What hasn’t been fully explored in the region is a promontory on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula: Cape Espenberg. Considered the “last great unstudied beach ridge sequence in Northwest Alaska,” according to Dr. John Hoffecker of the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), Cape Espenberg was a robust Iñupiat community from 1000 A.D. to about 1800 A.D. The cape is the focus of a three-year study supported by the National Science Foundation and co-led by Hoffecker and Dr. Owen Mason, also with INSTAAR. Their project aims to “track change over time to further develop an understanding for the formative period of Iñupiat culture,” said Hoffecker.

The beach at Cape Espenberg today. One thousand years ago, this was the site of a robust Inuit community. Photo by Owen K. Masen.

The beach at Cape Espenberg today. One thousand years ago, this was the site of a robust Inuit community. Photo: Owen K. Masen

“Cape Espenberg was abandoned by its inhabitants prior to the contact period  for reasons that are unclear,” said Hoffecker.. “We hope to recover more information about the people who were there in the late prehistoric times as well.”

Specifically through an interdisciplinary effort with archaeologists, soil specialists, paleoecologists, and other experts, they plan to map the cape’s beach ridges, complete partial excavation of myriad sub-terranean homes, collect artifacts, and sample the soil to better understand how the former inhabitants survived.

Before unearthing clues about the economy, the crew unearths the house. Photo John Hoffecker.

Before unearthing clues about the economy, the crew unearths the house. Photo: John Hoffecker

The crew excavates entirely by hand. After identifying a subterranean home, they outline the plot and get to work. Photo John Hoffecker.

The crew excavates entirely by hand. After identifying a subterranean home, they outline the plot and get to work. Photo: John Hoffecker

“We want to reconstruct their economy,” said Hoffecker. “We have yet to determine if whaling was an important economic component. There are whale bones on the cape, but it is possible the bone washed up there.” (Kotzebue Sound is not a popular migration path for whales, negating any modern-day whaling; whether or not whales traveled a different route 1,000 years ago is one topic Hoffecker and his colleagues will explore.)

One of the many artifacts unearthed during this summer's field season. Photo John Hoffecker.

One of the many artifacts unearthed during this summer's field season. Photo: Owen K. Mason

In addition, the team will complete an extensive map of the area and overlay it with evidence of the former occupants’ lifestyle, as pieced together by the artifacts and information from soil micromorphology they will collect. The team will focus on the period between 800 and 1400 AD, when major climate change occurred in conjunction with a cultural transition in the greater Bering Strait region.

The beach ridges at Cape Espenberg was formed by marine deposits and windblown sand, and its residents built their subterranean houses in sand using whale bone and drift wood to strengthen the structures, said Hoffecker. He and his team spent this summer’s field season surveying the ridges and selecting the main spots for next year’s research, when they will concentrate on ridges 6, 5, and 4. This summer they were a team of eight, and next year that number will grow as they bring a larger crew, camp staff, and students from nearby communities as part of a National Park Service mentorship program that aims to involve local Native Alaskan communities in the project and other scientific pursuits.

This summer was Hoffecker’s first on the cape, and he said the abundant wildlife and remote location often felt prehistoric. After a summer of recon, he said one of next year’s biggest challenges may be dealing with the more modern mammals: ground squirrels, which disrupted excavation.

“They weren’t shy at all,” he said. “They’d burrow into a fresh stratigraphic profile and just mess it up.”