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.

Protesters also decry the IWC's flexible definition of a traditional hunt.

"You hear the phrase 'aboriginal subsistence whaling,' and it conjures up a romantic image of hunters paddling canoes with spear in hand," says David Smith, founder and campaigns director of Breach Marine Protection, a prominent anti-whaling group in the United Kingdom.

"The reality is very different. We're talking about men armed with explosives, pursuing whales in motor boats and coordinating their maneuvers over CB radios. That's hardly traditional."

Bill Hess
In the Chukotkan village of Sireniki, revival hunters found and used a 100-year-old darting gun.
Bill Hess
In the Chukotkan village of Sireniki, revival hunters found and used a 100-year-old darting gun.


Read the second installment in this series: "Devil Fish"

But then, neither are quotas imposed by an international regulatory agency.

Lacking outboard motors, Etylin says, his ancestors primarily hunted juvenile whales, which swim closer to shore. "They killed many smaller whales. We have a quota, so we go after the big ones."

Asked if he considers explosive-tipped harpoons and assault rifles to be traditional weapons, Etylin sighs as the question is translated. Then he glares and snaps his answer.

"We adapt to survive. That is our tradition."

Today's native whalers of Chukotka have learned an important hunting technique for which their ancestors had no need.

Now, as they near a gray whale resting on the surface, they wait for it to exhale through its blowhole before they strike. If the whale's breath carries the telltale stench of a "stinky whale," the hunters leave it alone. If it is clean, they move in for the kill.

The native whalers have a hard time describing this malodor. It's not like gasoline, they say. It's not like rotten meat, either. The closest comparison they come up with is "medicine."

No one knows what it is yet, and the hunters of Chukotka are afraid.

"What if all the whales are poisoned, and only the most heavily poisoned are smelling bad?" asks Etylin. "If this is true, then all the meat is poisoned, and we may be poisoning ourselves by eating it. But we have no choice."

Such fears are entirely reasonable.

Gray whales are bottom feeders. They use suction to engulf sediment and prey from the bottom of the ocean, then filter the water through their baleen plates and ingest the remaining prey, along with sand and other bottom materials. As a result, they are highly exposed to chemical contaminants that have settled to the ocean floor.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out these whales are probably feeding at the bottom of some water contaminated with God knows what," says Dr. Tom Albert, senior scientist in the Department of Wildlife Management for Alaska's North Slope Borough. "If the whale stinks bad enough that people won't eat it, whatever's in it is probably in extremely high concentration, which means it should be easy to test for, even in whales that are contaminated but don't stink."

This summer, researchers funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service will travel to Chukotka and take samples from the whale hunters' kill.

"In all likelihood, within a year we'll know what's in these whales," says Albert. "Then we'll have to try to figure out how harmful it is, and where it's coming from."

Dr. Todd O'Hara, a marine mammal contaminants specialist who is managing this summer's research team, says industrial solvents are one reasonable suspect. "They're volatile enough to quickly react with the air and produce a strong smell," he says. Solvents also would accumulate in the fat tissue of whales.

However, O'Hara cautions, solvents are but one of several possible explanations for the stinky-whale phenomenon.

"These whales may have a metabolic disorder such as emaciation and be presenting with ketosis [an overload of ketones -- acids in the blood generated by rapid weight loss]. This can be smelled on the breath of an animal, as well as in its tissues."

In other words, the stinky whales may stink because they're starving to death.

That jibes with the recent, rapid increase in the number of undernourished gray whales found dead on beaches along their migratory path.

Reported gray whale strandings were relatively constant until 1999, when they suddenly spiked from between 20 and 50 a year to 282. Last year, more than 300 gray whales washed up dead. Scientists fear far more are perishing in the open ocean.

Parallel to this die-off is the plummeting gray whale birth rate. In 1997, 1,520 gray whales were observed in birthing lagoons. Last year, only 282 were seen.

Neither indicator is reassuring for a species recently heralded for its remarkable comeback. Biologists have only working theories to explain this ominous decline.

One hypothesis is that the species has reached its carrying capacity, meaning its habitat can no longer support its population size. Another is that the tiny animals eaten by gray whales are dying due to global warming and the resulting climatic changes in the Bering and Chukchi seas.

Native hunters report that gray whales are staying in the northern seas longer every summer, and a 1999 Endangered Species Act population review noted that gray whales were expanding their summer range, apparently in search of alternative feeding grounds. Both observations point to a problem finding food.

It could be that gray whales are eating themselves out of house and home. It could be that their food source is disappearing. It could be that they are poisoned by pollutants.

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