Rural Alaska

Sharing traditional knowledge, Inupiat hunters advance whale science

UTQIAĠVIK ― Observing how bowhead whales move underwater is a tricky task.

You need to place a tag on the smooth skin of a massive animal that only briefly rises to the surface. Attach it too low, and the satellite connection is weak. Approach it too conspicuously, and the whale will startle and disappear into the sea.

Scientists once used airguns, often with inefficient results. But things improved dramatically, they said, when they asked for help from people whose knowledge of bowhead whales spans generations: the hunters of Alaska’s north.

“You have to be able to learn how to chase that animal,” hunter Billy Adams said. The boat needs to follow the whale, keeping its distance from the footprint created by the whale’s tail moving up and down. “If you touch that footprint, it’s like sticking a needle. … It can startle the whale, and then you’ll lose the whale.”

Using traditional hunting knowledge and tools, North Slope whalers and scientists will be collaborating to tag bowhead whales in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this August and September. It’s one example of a longstanding collaboration: From hunters sharing with biologists how whales move and behave, to hunters’ wives sharing their observations about the animals they prepare to eat, Inupiaq experts have been informing whale research for decades.

“The local people deserve the credit for the bowhead program. They shared their knowledge,” said Craig George, a retired senior wildlife biologist at the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management. “We could never have done the ice-based census without the help of senior captains and whaling crews teaching us about whale biology, whale behavior, where and when to count, and how to work safely on ice.”

Counting whales

The partnership between whalers and scientists started in the late 1970s when biologists estimated that there were fewer than 1,000 bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock, and the International Whaling Commission in 1977 put a moratorium on whaling for the next year.


Adams said poor science led to great alarm in Alaska’s coastal communities. After intense negotiations, the U.S. requested a special meeting later in that same year where a quota was revised from zero to 12 landed bowhead whales.

“People who lived in these communities for thousands of years have known that animals were far greater in numbers,” Adams said.

In response to those restrictions, Inupiat whalers formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and offered a new approach to estimating the bowhead population. They recommend scientists use hydrophone arrays to locate whale calls and aerial surveys to track whales away from shore.

“They knew that whales were going under the ice and through the ice and communicating with sound ― talking to each other,” Adams said. “And there were whales that were being unseen further out.”

The count went up 40% to 50%, said George, who came to the North Slope during the moratorium. Over three decades later, the bowhead population was estimated at about 17,000 whales in 2011. Hunters, as well as Indigenous experts at the Wildlife Department continue to work alongside local and international biologists on projects that look at migratory behavior, anatomy and the impact of noise and seismic activity.

“As far as contributing to biology, the hunters have made a gigantic contribution,” George said.

Hunters, George said, form their knowledge and update their theories based on what they see, and they discuss their observations with each other to come to mutually agreed-upon statements.

“They act like scientists. They question your results. Some of the most strident criticisms we’ve gotten of our work have been right here.”

[From 2018: Bowhead whales, dwellers of icy seas, enjoy steady growth off Alaska in the age of climate change]

Bowhead anatomy

When George spent time with hunters on ice waiting for whales, he noticed that hunters made sure to shut down any burning around camps. They said they needed to keep the fumes away from the open water and whales. At the time scientists thought that bowheads didn’t have olfactory “hardware” and hence couldn’t smell.

The dilemma puzzled George as well as Dutch-American anatomist and paleontologist Hans Thewissen, who has been regularly coming to Alaska from Ohio to do whale research. Equipped with a hammer and chisel, Thewissen looked at the bowhead skull and found olfactory bulbs the size of a small finger ― “just not in the place where you would expect them,” he said.

“This was a real indication of Indigenous knowledge where the Inupiat people didn’t have anatomic knowledge, but they were actually right,” Thewissen said.

The head of the whale has spiritual meaning for Inupiat people, George said. Traditionally, whalers released the skull into the ocean to let the animal’s spirit return to the water. But whalers too wanted to learn more about how bowheads smell and donated skulls to the research.

In the same way, several Inupiat hunters allowed Thewissen to study another bone that has a ceremonial value: a layered part of the whale’s ear.

“It’s like tree rings: every year, the whale adds a layer of bone to this bone of the ear,” Thewissen said. “That’s kind of cool because you can count those layers and then you’ll know how old the whale is.”

The relatively round, fist-sized bone — called the tympanic bone, or siuti in Iñupiaq — is also an object that captains usually take from the whale to remind them of the hunt. They display them at home, sometimes inscribed with the date that the whale was caught. In some cases, captains even ask to be buried with these bones, Thewissen said. Still, a hunter agreed to give one of the ear bones to Thewissen for research.

“Lewis (Brower) was like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool! Like, you can tell me how old my whale was?’ ” Thewissen said. The scientist cut a slice out of the bone to count the layers, then filled a hollow in the bone with plastic and returned it to the whaler with a write-up about his whale’s age. “Then other hunters said, ‘Hey, can you figure out how old my whale is?’


“It’s an opportunity for these Inupiat hunters to learn more about this animal that they respect,” Thewissen said.

Whale hunter Bernadette Adams said that she loves asking scientists about whale anatomy and listening to their straight-to-the-point clear answers like when they told her that the animal has more than one stomach and demonstrated that part of the body to her.

“So it’s like they learned from us most,” she said, “but we also learn from them.”

Health experts on the ground

Contributing to science is often a family affair in whaling households, said Raphaela Stimmelmayr, a wildlife veterinarian and research biologist at the Wildlife Department.

“My closest colleagues are actually our hunters and hunters’ wives,” Stimmelmayr said. “Whatever they’re observing, I know that they have truly looked at it.”

A few years ago, one of the women was processing a bowhead whale’s kidneys, saw that the part had festered and shared the observation with Stimmelmayr. The scientist dissected 50 pounds of kidneys, came across kidney worms and started investigating the root of the problem. She also communicated back to the residents that they might want to avoid eating bowhead kidneys for a while.

“It is always two pieces: There’s the hunter who has incredible observations about the animal prior to the kill,” Stimmelmayr said. “The next group there is the wives, the women that are processing it, the women that are cooking it, the women that have a very clear understanding. How is it supposed to smell? How is it supposed to feel?

“You have experts on the ground,” she said, “and because they’re continually practicing, it’s an old knowledge that constantly gets infused with new life.”


Listening to whale songs

Bowhead whales have been heavily studied over the years, but the behavior and migration patterns of the animals change with the shifts in their habitat — like the ocean staying unbound by ice longer.

To continue closely looking at whale movements, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game together with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Barrow Whaling Captains Association are preparing for another tagging operation this fall. George said that the scientists are also working to uncover several mysteries of whale behavior.

Do bowheads see boats when they are underwater or when they surface? Why do the animals get cancer so rarely? What allows them to live up to 200 years? How do they find krill to eat? And why do bowhead whales sing?

Hunters have been listening to whale songs by sticking their paddles into the water and putting their ears at another end — “just to keep an eye out, just to try to hear the whale first,” whaling captain Herman Ahsoak said. That knowledge is crucial for the acoustic method of counting whales.

“Their breath is really loud when they come up close by,” Ahsoak said.

“It sounds like a jungle out there,” George agreed. “These are the greatest singers on Earth.”

In George’s house, everything relates to whaling: a whalebone before the entrance, baleen above the door, pictures of whales on the walls in the living room and stacks of whale science books on shelves and side tables. Excited, George walked to the next room with computer and audio equipment and played several recordings of whale songs.

“A pause, and he starts singing the same phrase,” George said as he played a melodic and melancholic recording. He went quiet listening to it. Then he switched to a song that sounded like a piercing eagle screech: “It’s so wildly different than what you just heard.”

The reasons why bowheads sing are a mystery to both hunters and scientists. The animals, Ahsoak said, might be trying to let other whales know where there is some open water. Passing information about food availability and calling for mating are other interpretations George offered.

“But I think we’re all scratching our heads,” George said. “Hunters are asking, ‘Why do they sing like that? Why do they call?’ And, you know, we ask them the same thing.”

The animals bring people together during harvest and sharing, George said, but they also bridge the communities of scientists and whalers who want to understand the bowhead behavior better.

“They say that the whale offers itself to a worthy hunter,” George said. “Well, it’s been sort of a gift to science too.”

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Alena Naiden

Alena Naiden writes about communities in the North Slope and Northwest Arctic regions for the Arctic Sounder and ADN. Previously, she worked at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.