Barrow whalers landed four bowheads Saturday to launch a promising fall hunt after what the borough mayor is calling a "terrible" spring season.
"It started out with a bang," Barrow Whaling Captains Association President Eugene Brower said of the fall hunt, which opened midnight Saturday.
Whaling crews had left that morning before daybreak. They struck four migrating bowheads over a roughly 45-minute span soon after first light, Brower said.
Successful whalers were towing another two bowheads to shore Sunday night as the city -- less than halfway from reaching the annual quota -- buzzed with news of feasts and butchering.
The hunt is a tradition of Arctic coastal communities and the source of a favorite subsistence food shared across the hub city of Barrow, population 4,100. The fall season had already opened in Nuiqsut and Kaktovik, where crews also landed whales, Barrow residents said.
North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta is captain of the Saggan Crew. He was expecting to feed more than 400 people Sunday night after landing a 37-foot, 11-inch female bowhead the previous morning.
"The ideal whale," he said.
It took up to seven boats three hours to tow the whale back to town, he said.
"My crew members are all out there, cutting up shares so our crew and family members can get all their shares," Itta said. "And I think that's what everybody's doing in town right now, largely. Preparing whale meat for storage."
Captains hold feasts in their homes after a successful hunt. They save some for Thanksgiving celebrations at church and share with elders. Everyone who helps with butchering -- which can take hours -- gets a share.
Itta said friends and family members had been baking at all hours to serve bread and Eskimo donuts along with heart, meat, intestine, kidneys and flipper to visitors. Some of the muktuk will be pickled and sent to relatives in Anchorage. Some of it will be frozen and eaten raw over the winter.
The spring hunt was far slower, with whalers landing four bowheads total.
"It's usually at least twice that. So people were really eager for the fall whaling season," said Mary Sage, whose husband is co-captain of the Akootchook Crew.
In the fall, whalers hunt from open water. But in the spring crews must hunt from and navigate sea ice. This year, west winds created dangerous ice conditions, preventing access to the whales, captains said.
"I didn't go, but my colleagues, fellow captains and cousins and just generally ... all whalers agreed that the ice was too thin," Itta said. "Dangerous. Bad for trail-making because you'd have open water in between ridges."
Barrow whalers are allowed a quota of up to 22 whales -- or "strikes" -- in 2009, Brower said.
If a boat strikes a whale with a harpoon, but doesn't land the bowhead, that strike counts against the overall quota.
"We were fortunate to land four the first day here without any losses," Itta said.
As he spoke, two more whales were being towed back to the city, where friends, family and volunteers would help butcher them at the old airport runway.
Barrow is the northernmost community in the United States. Currently, whalers have been heading north of Point Barrow, to the Beaufort Sea, Brower said.
That's where whales are moving west, migrating back to their winter grounds to the south.
In Kaktovik -- an Inupiat village of 270 people to the east -- the quota is three. Resident Fenton Rexford said the community has landed two, including one by his crew roughly two weeks ago.
The International Whaling Commission, which governs the world's large whale stocks, voted in 2007 to extend subsistence bowhead hunting in Alaska through 2012.