The Alaskan Hunters Teaching Scientists About Whales

Utqiaġvik, Alaska, is one of the only places where whale anatomists can get specimens for research.

A man passes the giant bones of a bowhead whale in a field near Utqiaġvik, Alaska.
Gregory Bull / AP

On the northernmost tip of America’s northernmost state is the city of Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Hans Thewissen, a Dutch-born whale scientist who lives in Ohio, has been making the journey up here for more than a decade—at first once a year, now multiple times a year, always to coincide with local whale hunts. Utqiaġvik is one of the only places in America where one can legally procure a piece of fresh whale brain or eyeball or ear to study.

Whales are strictly protected under U.S. law and by the International Whaling Commission. They can of course be observed from afar, but that is not much use to Thewissen, who is interested in the finer points of whale anatomy. Dead whales wash up on the land sometimes, but they are usually rotting by the time scientists get to them. “This is really the only place,” says Thewissen. Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow, is the largest of 11 communities where Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt whales for subsistence, as their ancestors have done for millennia. (Thewissen himself is not allowed on the hunts.)

These trips to the Arctic have made possible a series of uniquely intimate studies of bowhead whales—stout, blue-black creatures that grow up to 100 tons. Thewissen has peered inside the mouths of unborn whales, which grow and then reabsorb teeth before they develop the baleen that adult bowheads use to feed on krill. He’s sawed open whale skulls to trace nerve cells from the inside of the nose to the brain—proving that bowhead whales can indeed smell. He’s investigated mysterious whiskers that grow around the blow hole. All of these studies have required working closely with the Iñupiat people native to the area; some were directly inspired by conversations with whaling captains.

Utqiaġvik has long attracted adventurers and scientists, thanks to its location at the very north of the United States. Thewissen’s work fits into decades of research that draws on indigenous knowledge about the Arctic. This whale research is now an example of the productive collaboration between outside scientists and the Iñupiat, but that wasn’t always the case.

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“I’ve been whaling all my life,” says Arnold Brower Jr., the executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The organization is made up of captains and crew from the 11 whaling communities. As young boy, Brower was out on the ice, watching and learning as grown-ups cut up whales to divide among families. As a young man, he was in the boats hunting whales. He’s almost 70 years old and still a whaling captain.

In 1977, the International Whaling Commission set a quota of zero for bowhead-whale hunting, dealing a significant blow to Alaska Natives who rely on whaling for subsistence. Brower recalls meeting with the United States’ delegate to the IWC at the time. The quota came out of concerns of low bowhead-whale populations based on a U.S. government survey. The number seemed far too low based on the experience of the whaling captains.

The captains formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and they eventually decided to conduct their own bowhead census to increase the quota. In 1982, the commission turned over the census to the local government of North Slope Borough, which encompasses Utqiaġvik. The borough hired its own scientists, who determined the federal-government census had been undercounting bowhead whales. The problem, as later recounted by Thomas Albert, one of those North Slope Borough scientists, was that the conventional scientific wisdom was wrong. Scientists thought that bowhead whales were “afraid” of ice and only swam in open water. In fact, those whales were swimming under ice, out of view from the previous observers.

It wasn’t easy at first for researchers and the Iñupiat hunters to work together. Albert recalled that the events from 1977 made the locals suspicious. “Some were reluctant to share their knowledge with scientists for fear that their bowhead information would be used against them by the federal government, the IWC, or both,” he wrote. Brower remembers it too. “At first, it didn’t seem like they should be there,” he says of the scientists. “It seemed bothersome when we’re trying to get our nutritional needs met.”

Over time though, thanks to personal relationships that developed between scientists and some of the Iñupiat, things got better. “Now studying the number of whales and having a census has become an important element in our quota,” Brower says. The North Slope Borough’s department of wildlife management still runs the bowhead-whale census. Hans Thewissen first got in touch with the borough over a decade ago because he was interested how whales develop in the womb. (Curiously, they grow and then lose traits that link them to land, like teeth and legs.) Utqiaġvik was one of the few places where he could find them.

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Bowhead whale hunts take place twice a year in Utqiaġvik, in the spring and in the fall.

The spring hunt has traditionally been the more important one. Around mid-May, the whaling crews set out on snowmobiles for the edge of the sea ice. They set up camp for days or even weeks, waiting for migrating whales to appear.

Crews still use a traditional seal-skin boat called a umiaq in the spring. (The fall hunt uses motorized boats because there is no sea ice. As it’s gotten warmer in the Arctic and there’s been less ice in the spring, the fall hunt has become increasingly important.) Building a umiaq can take a couple years—between collecting driftwood, acquiring seal skins, and hunting caribou big enough that their sinew can be used to sew the skins together. Hunting and fishing to provision the whaling camps is another year-round endeavor.

“We don’t have our certifications and credentials like scientists,” says Harry Brower Jr., mayor of the North Slope Borough that includes Utqiaġvik and a whaling captain himself. But to even prepare to hunt whales is to be intimately familiar with the seasonal cycles of the Arctic.

Harry is also Arnold’s cousin. Their grandfather, Charles Brower, was a Yankee who came up to Utqiaġvik as a commercial whaler, married in the local community, and had 14 children. There are a lot of Browers in Utqiaġvik.

It’s about more than simple survival, says Harry: “We’re very spiritual and religious people in the North Slope. We know these resources are God-given resources.” When a whale appears near the ice close enough to be taken, the Iñupiat speak of the whale giving itself to a captain worthy of it.

(Anti-whaling activists, of course, don't see it this way, which has led to continued cultural clashes. When a 16-year-old boy caught a whale this spring—an enviable feat in his community—he became deluged with threats on Facebook after an activist posted a rant calling the teenager's actions murder.)

Children of Utqiaġvik, who are too small to help with the cutting, are still brought down to the whale, while family members point and explain the process. (Gregory Bull / AP)

To capture a whale, the hunters first use a darting gun. If the darting gun does not kill the whale right away, they use another shoulder-mounted gun to hasten its death. The whale is then pulled onto the ice and butchered. Portions are set aside for the captain, crew, and others that helped butcher the whale.

Back in town, the organs are boiled at the captain’s house, where hundreds of townspeople might come to take part in the feast. The rest is stored in ice cellars carved out of the permafrost. It’s at this point that Thewissen gets his samples, too. “They know me standing out there,” he says. “There’s the ear guy again.

During one of his visits, Thewissen heard the captains talking about the bowhead’s sense of smell. Scientists didn’t think that the whales could smell. After all, why would whales living in the water need to sense things in the air? But the Iñupiat knew that smoke from a campfire, for example, would drive whales far from the shore. On their suggestion, Thewissen dissected the head of the bowhead whale, only to find a nerve from the whale's nostril leading to an olfactory bulb in the brain.

In another study, he was puzzled about the buoyancy of baby whales. Young bowhead whales have a rich diet of milk, and they balloon into fat little babies. Once they’re weaned, they go into a period of relative starvation as their baleen slowly grows in. And they lose a lot of their buoyant fat. So how come a fat 1-year-old whale and and skinny 5-year-old whale both stay buoyant in the water?

Thewissen suspected it had something to do with the bones, but he couldn’t find any discernible pattern in his bone samples. Then one hunter suggested looking at the ribs. He said his father would use the ribs of 1-year-old bowhead whales—only 1-year-olds—to weigh down nets. So Thewissen looked at the ribs, which were indeed thick and heavy in one-year-old whales. Over a period of five years, he observed, the ribs would lose as much as 40 percent of their mass. It clicked: To compensate for losing fat, young whales lose bone mass in their ribs.

Craig George, a biologist with the North Slope Borough’s department of wildlife, helps conduct the bowhead census, and also does research on the whales with Thewissen. “It’s a win-win deal,” he says. Other research groups from as far away as Australia have also established collaborations in the North Slope to study whales. It’s not just whales either. Research into other Arctic species such as seals and migratory birds and caribou have also drawn heavily on local knowledge.

Things are changing in Utqiaġvik, of course. The ice has been getting thinner, as climate change has brought warm temperatures to the Arctic. Some of the younger generation isn't as keen on learning how to hunt whales. Harry Brower Jr. lamented this in a way that will be familiar to any parent: “Sometimes they aren’t active, just sit around watching TV or playing iPhones or iPads or computer games that take away time from learning their skills.”

At least some of the traditional knowledge is, if only in bits and pieces, being laid down in the written scientific record.