Survival

When the captain brought the journalist along on the whale hunt, the elders predicted trouble. The elders were right. The whale tried to kill them all.

The recovery of the Eastern North Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is arguably the single greatest turnaround of an endangered species, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal. The trek joins the competing interests of Indians, scientists, environmentalists and local residents. In this installment, writer David Holthouse takes readers on an unusual whale hunting trip in the grim netherlands of the Russian Far East, where starving villagers face the desperate necessity of subsistence hunting. The Siberian natives' survival is compromised by whales that are chemically contaminated.

Robert King
Top: An Eskimo harpooner in the Bering Strait scans the horizon for whale signs. Above: Whale hunters from the village of Lavrentiya rush toward a pod of feeding grays.
David Holthouse
Top: An Eskimo harpooner in the Bering Strait scans the horizon for whale signs. Above: Whale hunters from the village of Lavrentiya rush toward a pod of feeding grays.

Far from home in the Bering Strait, beneath looming mid-August skies the color of gun smoke, Eskimo hunting boats circle a wounded gray whale.

The whale is bleeding and furious; he is 45 feet long and weighs 55,000 pounds. Rather than dive for cover, he turns to fight.

Nineteenth-century commercial whalers called gray whales "Devil Fish" for their fierce attacks on schooners many times the size of the metal skiffs, wooden rowboats and walrus-skin kayaks carrying the men who would kill this whale on the high seas. And this whale is about to serve notice: The hunt is over. This is a battle now.

He is nearly twice as long as the first boat he charges. Three lookouts in the small fishing boat's stern, including an 11-year-old boy, see him coming and shout in warning. One man reaches for a rifle. But there is no time. The whale explodes from the water, 27 and a half tons of rage, and rams the boat headfirst.

Wham!

The impact rocks the boat like a bathtub toy slapped by a big mean brother. Onboard is bedlam. The head of a harpoon flies loose and a hunter falls on it, peeling his shin to the bone on its barb. Inside the cabin the boat's pilot caroms off a wall, falls into the inboard engine well, and cracks his head on the running motor. Another hunter leaps up to kill the power.

The boat lies dead in the water. Yakov Sivsiv, 11, lies curled on its deck, bawling. Just a minute ago, Sivsiv was relishing the day, proud to be along on the hunt, and eager to see the whale die. Now he just wants to be home in his village, instead of here on this sitting target. Sivsiv reeled into a ladder when the whale hit, then screamed when one of his uncles, cut down by the collision, crashed across his knees. "My legs!" the boy cries.

His voice drowns in the tumult of men scrambling for weapons, shouting wildly, and pointing out to sea with dread in their eyes.

Buried in the fat of the vengeful whale are two harpoon heads, each tied by a 35-foot length of rope to a pair of fluorescent orange buoys. The buoys are supposed to slow down the whale, and allow the hunters to track him, even underwater. Right now the buoys are clearly visible about 50 yards out completing a slow, ominous, 180-degree turn.

The Devil Fish is coming about to wreak hell.

Mikhail Zelensky, captain of the hunters, chambers a round in his Kalishnikov assault rifle.

Chik-chik!

The council of elders warned him this would happen. Last night they admonished Zelensky not to allow an outsider to observe the hunt, predicting it would bring bad luck. Then Zelensky's hunters grew fearful. They said they didn't want to go if the American were along. Tough, Zelensky said. I gave my word and I'll keep it. He reminded them of his journey in February, when he traveled from their village in Siberia to Barrow, Alaska. There he met with their Eskimo brethren on the other side of a border drawn and guarded by governments that rarely seem to care about the harshness of life in the Arctic. Zelensky delivered grave news: The gray whales his people must eat to live are contaminated. Some are so putrefied with chemicals that sled dogs won't eat their meat. The Alaskans, who also hunt whales, promised to push for answers from the International Whaling Commission. Charged with protecting the health of the world's whales, the IWC dictates from the softened luxury of its annual conventions in Monte Carlo, Sydney, and London how many whales Eskimos may kill for subsistence. The Alaskans gave Zelensky new weapons to bring back, along with a piece of advice: Let the outside world know how life is for you and why you hunt the whales. So Zelensky extended an invitation to a journalist: When the summer comes and we hunt again, cross the waters and join us. He kept his word.

Now, with his boat battered by the enraged gray and one of the children of his village wailing at his feet, he wonders whether the elders might have been right.

Zelensky is in 25 feet of boat, sighting down his barrel at 45 feet of incoming whale.

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