Alaska News

Lightning strikes twice for Wainwright whaling captain

Can lightning strike twice for whalers?

It did last week for Wainwright captain Walter Niyakik, who landed his second bowhead in two years. Those two whales are the only successful landings in 70 years for the village of about 550 people southwest of Barrow.

"It was a pretty exciting time for Wainwright," said Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission Executive Director Johnny Aiken. "This was historic."

The North Slope's up-and-down season that's now a month old reached a high point last Saturday when five teams landed whales in one day.

The productive Saturday meant that the first month of the season, which opened Oct. 8, has seen 11 bowheads landed.

Young, unstable ice and high winds have been the whalers' biggest hurdles, Aiken said. While the season opened with a few days of clear skies, it started blowing almost immediately, grounding boats for several days. Once they launched, however, the crews faced another challenge.

"The whalers had to cross about a 4-mile stretch of young ice to get out to the water," he said.

Despite the challenging conditions, Aiken said it's been a safe season so far. Crews have waited out the worst of the blows, finding success in small windows of decent sea conditions – like last Saturday's five-whale day.

North Slope Borough mayoral candidate George Ahmaogak Sr. of Barrow was among this season's successful whaling captains. Ahmaogak, who is pitted against Charlotte Brower in a runoff election on Tuesday, brought in a 33.5-foot male bowhead last Thursday.

Whale size has been a mixed bag so far. Most bowheads taken have been average size or small — 27 to 35 feet long — but four exceeded 40 feet. The landings are helping fill the freezers of entire villages, Aiken said.

That's one of the points he said a recent New York Times article missed. The Times ran a story about Barrow's whalers on Oct. 17, following a reporter's visit to Barrow. The story focused on the fleet's use of modern equipment like forklifts and chainsaws to help land, move and process whales. This system is quite different in the spring, Aiken explained, when crews use more traditional methods.

"The primary whaling is done in the spring with the skin boats, and when we are not successful in the spring, we have leftover strikes in the fall," Aiken said. That makes fall crunch time.

The sarcastic tone of the piece was difficult to miss by many North Slope residents and seemed to reject the notion that a hunt using modern adaptations could remain a traditional event.

"It didn't really articulate what whaling is up here on the North Slope," Aiken said, "(or) how most people feel up here."

First and foremost he said, while it zoomed in on the use of a backhoe during the heavy work, it failed to point out how many people would be fed that winter because a whale was landed.

The whaling season typically continues until late December or early January. North Slope whaling vessels are allotted 76 strikes for the spring and fall seasons combined. Each village gets a portion of those strikes depending on population. Barrow, the largest of these communities with about 30 crews, was allotted 22 strikes this year. Both Barrow and Kaktovik have filled their quotas.

Hannah Heimbuch

Hannah Heimbuch is a reporter for The Arctic Sounder and The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman.