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Rural Alaska

Teenager helps land Utqiagvik’s first whale of fall season

  • Author: Jenna Kunze
    , Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: September 4
  • Published September 3

Yay hey hey!

Last week, 16-year-old Jenilee Donovan of Utqiaġvik went from a Barrow Whaler athlete to a Barrow whaler in earnest when she threw the darting gun releasing the second harpoon that landed her community its first bowhead of the season.

The successful Quuniq Crew, composed of six other crew members on Aug. 25, included Jenilee’s father and crew captain, Michael Quuniq Donovan, and crew member Mitchak Gatten.

“We didn’t really have much time,” Gatten told The Sounder. Longtime whaler Billy Adams had shot the prey with a shoulder gun, and Gatten harpooned it with a darting gun explosive that “just didn’t do the job.”

Quuniq called out, “Jen, you wanna harpoon?” Gatten relayed.

Jenilee Donovan brings the Quuniq Crew flag in on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, after a successful hunt out of Utqiagvik. (Photo by Michael Quuniq Donovan)

She hesitated, not knowing where to throw it.

While captain Donovan maneuvered the boat closer, Gatten and Adams coached the teenager on where to shoot the darting gun.

“Three feet behind the blowhole, straight down,” captain Donovan said.

“She just put a money shot right on the whale, which rolled the whale right over,” captain Donovan said later that week. “It was pretty awesome to see.”

The catch: a 36-foot, 1-inch, young male bowhead that community members will subsist on over the next year.

“She’s a whale killer now,” Gatten said. “She’s gone down in history for being a whale killer for the community of Barrow.”

With the help of three other crews — Hopson 1, Amiqaq and Little Kupaq — who responded to VHF radio calls, the whalers towed their bounty to shore from 20 miles off Point Barrow, near the coast of Cooper Island.

When the four boats docked by the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory runway in the evening with a whale in tow, more than 150 cars sat waiting on shore to help butcher the animal and take home a share of meat, Michael Donovan said. Three days later, the family was sitting, cutting and cooking to serve the community drive-thru style to avoid potentially spreading COVID-19.

The Quuniq Crew landed the first whale — a 36-foot male bowhead — for Utqiaġvik on Aug. 25, 2020. (Photo by Michael Quuniq Donovan)

Community members were particularly excited to learn of Ruby and Michael Donovan’s oldest daughter’s hand in the successful hunt.

Growing up as the oldest of five, Jenilee Donovan helped her family’s whaling crew for years, though this year was her first time actively participating.

“I’ve always been saying I wanted to harpoon a whale,” she told The Sounder.

Jenilee’s dad describes her as a seasoned athlete who plays basketball on the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) elite team that travels the United States. She said she wants to pursue athletics in college, but also continue whaling.

“I want to go to college for basketball and study marine biology so I can go out for the whales and work as a part of the (North Slope Borough) Wildlife (Department),” she said.

Gatten said that Jenilee’s accomplishment is another example of a departure from the typical female role in whaling in Utqiaġvik.

“For the community of Barrow, women going out whaling was never really a big thing,” he said. “They never fit the role of being a harpooner, a driver, a gunner, a captain. Now we’ve got women captains, now we’ve got women harpooners. Seeing how that’s been changing and women filling those roles and succeeding in those roles proves that anyone can do.”

In 2014, fellow captain Bernadette Adams, a peer of husband-and-wife team Michael and Ruby Donovan, made headlines as the first female whaler known to have taken a bowhead.

Whaling is equal opportunity, as far as Michael Donovan is concerned. “The ladies are just as tough as men,” he said. “Like Jen(ilee). I’d take her over a lot of other young males, she’s so knowledgeable. Our ladies are stepping up. Bernadette is a perfect example of that.”

Also on Aug. 25, the Makalik Crew, led by Ross Wilhelm, caught a second bowhead 10 miles south of Donovan’s location. K2 Crew whalers in Kaktovik, led by George Kaleak, caught another bowhead the same day.

Three successful hunts on the first day of opening season represent a turnaround from last fall, when Utqiaġvik caught just one whale in mid-November.

Last year, unprecedented high temperatures and record low offshore ice likely accounted for the unusual whale migration, according to whalers and scientists. Airborne surveys from last fall revealed bowheads much farther offshore than their usual range.

“It seems like the animals are starting to migrate sooner and sooner every year,” Donovan said. So when the community got word this week from a boater returning from Nuiqsut of a whale migration heading north, hunters assembled quickly.

Members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, in addition to Barrow Whaling Captains, decided on an earlier start date.

In Utqiaġvik, on Aug. 25, the Makalik Crew and Quuniq Crew were the only two on the water, Michael Donovan said. His crew landed its whale within the first two hours of leaving shore.

As of Aug. 27, Utqiaġvik whalers have six strike allowances left in their 25 total annual quota for whale takes.

There are 35 registered crews, though not all are active in both spring and fall seasons.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported what NARL stands for. The four boats coming from near Point Barrow docked by the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory runway, not the National Atmospheric Research Laboratory runway.

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