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.