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Whalers find good fortune this fall and land Arctic bowhead 'butterballs'

Alex DeMarban
Geroge Ahmaogak's butterball bowhead whale measured 27 feet in length and 27 feet in circumference. The community of Barrow landed 20 whales this fall, a dramatic improvement from a dismal spring that only saw two of the marine mammals landed. Courtesy George Ahmaogak

The nation's northernmost community will chomp down on a massive butterball this Thanksgiving, a 27-foot-long specimen that will feed thousands. But this is no massive tofu turkey or genetically modified poultry. The Iñupiat Eskimos of Barrow, Alaska, will instead smack their lips on the bowhead whale that’s been landed by Capt. George Ahmaogak, a whaler with experience and international blessing to hunt whales in harmony with Alaska Native traditions.

Bowheads – like the turkey eaten by those celebrating the colonial Thanksgiving – are succulent. The best-tasting bowheads are as round as they are long; the younger specimens tend to have tastier blubber and meat.

"That's the choice whale a lot of Eskimo whalers look for," Ahmaogak said. His whaling crew landed an “Eskimo butterball” on Oct. 2, the last day of what turned out to be a spectacular autumn hunt for subsistence whalers. Good fortune this fall followed a terrible spring hunt for Barrow, when only two bowheads were landed.

"I'm pretty happy with it," said an excited Ahmaogak of the whale. "It was 27 feet long [with] a 27-foot circumference on the belly."

Tongue, flipper, muktuk

Temperatures were well below freezing this weekend in Barrow and the whale's thick blubber and meat sat frozen outside Ahmaogak's house, waiting to be sliced into chunks and loaded into boxes that will be distributed to churches for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts.

From there, residents can take home portions for their families: some tongue here, some flipper there, and of course the juicy fat and skin called muktuk.

"The whale is considered public," Ahmaogak said. "It belongs to the community, so every whaling captain donates to the community."

There is plenty to donate this fall, what with 20 whales landed. Ahmaogak said many of the whales landed this autumn were of the “butterball variety” – round and succulent, full of nutrients – and welcome after a spare spring hunt when steady winds from the west had blown thick ice ashore, blocking the hunters from open water.

"The ice just remained shut, and the whales migrated right on through," passing the community of 4,200, Ahmaogak recalled. Die-hard whalers tried to salvage the spring season as best they could, heading out in their skiffs until mid-July -- more than a month later than normal. By then, ice conditions had improved and crews landed two giant stragglers -- the biggest measuring 54 feet long.

The catch was a big drop from the dozen or more often harvested in spring. One of the whales was discovered six days after it had been struck and lost. Residents called that 44-foot male a 'stink whale' for its powerful stench, but they were grateful for whatever muktuk and meat they salvaged.

Fall feast

Spring’s famine became September’s bounty. Crews took back to the Chukchi Sea starting Sept. 15; the community whale harvest quota this fall, 22 bowheads, was caught and killed within two weeks, Ahmaogak said.

For the year, Barrow struck and lost only two whales, a remarkable 92 percent efficiency rate well above the usual average of 80 percent. The number is important because too many lost whales could provide ammunition for whale hunting critics who would like to stop subsistence whaling.

"I thought the season went rather well," said Ahmaogak. "There were no mishaps, we were fortunate not to have any accidents, and we kept our losses low."

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, based in Barrow, tracks whaling for 10 Alaska communities. Each year, 75 strikes are divided among the communities according to population.

According to fall numbers provided by the commission:

  • Kaktovik landed three whales
  • Nuiqsut landed four whales and lost one
  • Wainwright landed three whales and lost two

Part of Barrow's success came because captains there decided to start hunting weeks earlier than normal, Ahmaogak said. Whales are these days migrating west from Canada about a month earlier than they once did, he said, perhaps chasing krill that now arrive off of Barrow earlier in fall.

"A lot of captains say the weather has changed up here, and the migrations have changed significantly," he said.

What hasn't changed is Ahmaogak's taste for whale. He'll be enjoying as much as he can this Thanksgiving, preferably raw, frozen and sometimes with a dash of salt.

"It's what we need to stay warm up here,” he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com