Dying Breeds

Siberian Eskimos on the edge of the Earth and the brink of starvation saved their lives and their culture by reviving the lost tradition of whale hunting. Now they worry the gray whales are poisoned.

The most popular provisional weapons, though, were .30-caliber carbines and AK-47 assault rifles. Such firearms prove excellent for killing human beings. For killing whales, though, they're like trying to bring down a moose with a pellet gun.

"It took many bullets and a long time," says Etylin. "This was very dangerous, because wounded whales get very angry. These rifles were not good for us, and not good for the whale, but these weapons were all we had."

A report prepared by the Russian government in 1996 detailed the crude killing methods of Chukotka whalers in the summer of 1995, when 85 gray whales were killed. According to the report, the number of rifle bullets required to kill the whales varied from 225 to 700 rounds. The median was 400 bullets per whale. The elapsed time between the first shot fired and the death of the whale ranged from one to nine hours.

An Alaskan whaling captain stands in Whalebone Alley, an abandoned village in Chukotka, during a visit by members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
Bill Hess
An Alaskan whaling captain stands in Whalebone Alley, an abandoned village in Chukotka, during a visit by members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society took this video of a gray whale hunt in Chukotka in September 1997.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society took this video of a gray whale hunt in Chukotka in September 1997.

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Those same hunters are now able to kill a gray whale in a matter of seconds, with a single strike.

The difference is their weapon of choice. Instead of assault rifles, most Chukotka whalers now use explosive-tipped projectile harpoons, more commonly and euphemistically known as darting guns.

Commercial whalers invented the first darting gun in 1848 as a more expeditious method of dispatching a harpooned whale. The weapon's design has remained more or less the same. Darting guns work like a miniature, three-stage rocket, fitted within a gun barrel at the end of a spear. When thrust into a whale, a trigger fires a 12-gauge shotgun shell that launches an explosive dart with a delayed fuse. The dart penetrates the whale's hide and blubber, burrowing toward its vital organs. A few seconds later, the delayed fuse detonates the bomb inside the whale, usually killing it instantly.

Contact between Yankee whalers and Eskimos in Alaska and Chukotka transferred the darting gun between cultures.

In the old days, the Eskimo technique for hunting whales was to stealthily paddle up alongside and stab it with harpoons attached by lines to sealskin floats (basically gutted, inflated seals). The floats dragged behind the whale, slowing it down and making it difficult for the creature to submerge. The hunters pursued until the whale was weak enough to approach and finish off with a blow to the head from a heavy-tipped killing lance. The floats then prevented the dead whale from sinking as it was towed back to shore.

Before the turn of the century, native whalers in Alaska and Chukotka retrofitted darting guns with sealskin floats and were using the new weapons in place of classic harpoons. Harvests on both sides of the Bering Strait improved.

But separate fates awaited the two native cultures. The people of Chukotka were subjugated and impoverished, while their Alaskan brethren were empowered and enriched by a more sympathetic government.

A bit of history:

In 1971, the U.S. Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which gave Alaska natives $1 billion with which to capitalize regional native corporations. The Inupiat whalers who populate Alaska's northern coast formed the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and levied heavy taxes on the big oil companies pumping crude from Alaska's North Slope.

Part of the revenue went to fund the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, a powerful coalition that advances the agenda of Alaskan native whalers and, increasingly, indigenous whalers everywhere.

In 1997, for example, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, along with its lawyer and lobbyists, backed a successful bid by the Makah Indians of Washington state to resume hunting gray whales after a 70-year break. Once the Makah had obtained international approval for the hunt, the AEWC hired a whaling-weapons specialist from Norway to advise the tribe.

The Alaskan whalers have rendered critical assistance to their counterparts in Chukotka, including shipments of radios, compasses, binoculars, outboard motors, money to buy fuel and, most important, darting guns. They trained the Siberian hunters in how to safely use the darting guns, and funded a program in which the few Chukotkans who remembered how to build traditional hunting boats were sought out and hired as instructors.

Equally as meaningful, the Alaskans have schooled the Siberians in the ways of the International Whaling Commission, the bureaucratic body that dictates both of their "aboriginal subsistence whaling" quotas for bowheads and grays. (Alaskan Eskimos primarily hunt the endangered bowhead whale, not grays.)

Formed to subdue the rapacious commercial whaling industry, the International Whaling Commission in 1986 imposed a moratorium on whale hunting. As an exception, it allows limited "aboriginal subsistence whaling" by indigenous people, on two conditions: They must have a "nutritional need" for whale meat, and hunting whales must be traditional to their culture.

Opponents of native whaling argue one could safely fire a harpoon through the interpretive loopholes in those rules.

"This 'returning to the old ways' exemption to the global ban could open up whale hunts to virtually any group that has inhabited a coastal area for more than 100 years," says Andrew Christie, information director for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an environmental activist group. "The Asian black market and smuggling pipeline for contraband whale meat already does a brisk business. . . . The revival of hundreds of 'spiritual, cultural' native hunts worldwide would swell that pipeline into a superhighway."

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