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More than twice the size of the largest great white sharks, they grow to be 50 feet long and can weigh 80,000 pounds. Highly intelligent and communicative, gray whales are typically docile toward humans, if not playfully curious. Mother grays have been known to usher their calves into contact with visitors to Mexican whale sanctuaries, as if in petting zoos.
There's no reason to fear a gray whale -- unless you're trying to kill it. Then the rules change. Unlike other cetaceans preyed upon by man, gray whales fight back.
"They are very aggressive, very smart, and very dangerous. They know when they're being hunted," says Mikhail Zelensky, a subsistence whaler from the isolated Siberian province of Chukotka.
Tales abound in Yankee whaling lore of gray whales attacking 80-foot schooners, using their huge beaks as battering rams to stave in the sides of the wooden ships.
Imagine hunting such beasts from boats made of walrus skin and driftwood in the Bering Sea, 10 miles from shore.
"I have seen [gray whales] chase many boats," says Zelensky. "They come up behind and try to crush them, or they dive beneath the surface and then come up beneath, to throw the boat and the men into the air."
In Chukotka, whaling is a matter of survival as well as ceremony. Thousands would go hungry in the forgotten region were it not for whale flesh.
And the clear and present physical danger of hunting gray whales is not the only threat to this people's precarious existence.
The hunters of Chukotka have uncovered a more insidious one.
Beginning three years ago, they say, about one in 10 of the gray whales they killed and towed to shore released an overpowering chemical stench once it was cut open. The whales were so fouled by an unknown contaminant even hungry sled dogs refused the reeking meat.
The appearance of these "stinky whales," as the hunters call the laced leviathans, coincides with a sudden decline in the gray whale's overall population.
Although scientists have been intensely monitoring the mysterious die-off, the discovery of apparently contaminated gray whales has gone unpublished. For the people who depend on gray whales for food, however, the implications are all too clear.
The end of the Earth has a name: Chukotka.
A gnarled protrusion connecting the northeastern frontier of Siberia with the turbulent confluence of the Pacific and Arctic oceans, 80 miles from Alaska, the Chukotka Peninsula is so remote it does not appear on many maps of the world. The land and its people exist between the edges of charted perception, in the most extreme of environments.
There are two seasons on the Siberian promontory: the longest, coldest, cruelest winter endured by any native people on the planet, and the other four months of the year.
Early spring may be a time of renewal for most of the Northern Hemisphere, but it's dying time in Chukotka. Winter cyclones still prowl the tundra, the wind-chill factor still hits 100 below, and doctors still travel from village to village, amputating frostbitten fingers and toes.
Though not the coldest or darkest period of winter in Chukotka, the crossover weeks from March to April are among the most harrowing for the Yupik Eskimo and Chukchi tribes who populate the peninsula. Their winter stores of heating oil and food are nearly exhausted. Famine is their shadow beneath the ashen Arctic sun. They have only to ready their weapons and wait for the whales to return.
Every summer, more than 20,000 Eastern Pacific gray whales pass Chukotka to and from their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas. The grays gorge on bottom-dwelling crustaceans, then depart for the lagoons of Mexico's Baja Peninsula in the fall, when the northern seas begin to freeze.
For most of their 12,000-mile migration up and down the Pacific Coast, gray whales are a tourist attraction, protected by international law.
Once they reach Chukotka, they're food.
The native hunters of Chukotka, like their ancestors from time immemorial, slay gray whales from small boats in merciless waters. During the May-to-September hunting season, they kill scores of the majestic marine mammals, whose fat and flesh they consume through the winter.
This cycle of survival has persisted for at least 5,000 years, with one brief but brutal interruption: the rise and fall of the Soviet Empire.
Viewed from the sea, the coast of Chukotka appears as a series of half-moon bays divided by high cliffs shaped like horns. In the distant past, each of these bays was home to an individual native settlement. The cliffs demarcated hunting territory, and the people who lived between them practiced a timeless form of communism, born of necessity, not politics.
It took a while for the Soviet overlords to look into the farthest reaches of their new dominion. They developed no serious interest in Chukotka until shortly after the end of World War II, when the early fronts in the Cold War were being established. The masterminds of Moscow decided it would be unwise to leave these bronze-skinned people unattended so close to the United States. The order came: Pack up and come with us.
The natives were forced to abandon their small coastal villages, where they lived in sod and skin huts, and relocate to consolidated settlements inland, where they were crammed into concrete-block apartment towers. Instead of hunting and gathering, they toiled on state-sponsored farms, raising and skinning fur foxes. It was ghastly, humiliating labor. In a gross perversion of their traditional culture, the Eskimos were made to feed the foxes the meat of gray whales slaughtered by a Soviet factory whaling ship.
"Subsistence hunting is the basis of our life, our culture, our language," says Etylin, director of the new Chukotka hunters' group. "When this was taken from us ... we began to forget our identity as a unique people. We began to forget our traditions. We were lost."
Decades passed. Alcoholism and suicide consumed many souls, as the natives of Chukotka grew more and more dependent upon government subsidies and centralized shipments of food, clothing, and fuel.
Then the shipments stopped coming.
After the Soviet Union disintegrated, and the new Russian Federation began its grueling transition from command to market economy, there was no money for Chukotka anymore. It was chopped off the supply lines.
"The government basically told these people, "Sorry about the mix-up. You're free now. OK, go be natives again,'" says Dr. Tom Albert, a wildlife scientist in Barrow, Alaska, who has worked extensively with Chukotka's subsistence whalers for the past 15 years. "There was just one small problem. They'd pretty much forgotten how."
More than 50 years of Soviet control was long enough for two generations of men to come of age never having built a skin boat, read the skies for an approaching storm, or held harpoon in hand in the face of a charging gray whale. Their wives had never learned how to butcher meat, weave a net, or make warm, waterproof hunting garb from reindeer skins. Lacking crucial knowledge and equipment, the natives of Chukotka faced a raw choice: start hunting whales again, or find out whether the world would let them starve like Somalians.
Last summer, native hunters killed 113 gray whales in the Bering and Chukchi seas. The summer before that, 121. This summer, with new weapons, they plan for the first time to kill 135 -- the maximum allowed them by international law.
The 17,000 native people of Chukotka have effectively returned to a traditional lifestyle based around marine mammal hunting (they also hunt walrus, seals, and bowhead whales). They have relearned many ancient skills, including how to build hunting boats called baidaras from driftwood and skins. And they are spreading out, repopulating dozens of historic village sites along the coast.
"It was not a romantic choice for us to return to the old ways," says Etylin. "When we began hunting whales again, we were thinking only of how to keep living. Now we are realizing we may have saved not just our lives, but also our culture."
Yet in the midst of this revival, the natives of Chukotka remain a people in peril. The past three Siberian winters have been among the worst on record. This January, a freak cold front shoved the mercury to 55 below for two weeks straight. At least 113 people died. Last year, one village of 400 lost nearly 10 percent of its population to malnutrition and disease. Scurvy is common in Chukotka, and cases of cancer are rapidly accumulating, while the birth rate is crashing, down 50 percent since 1986.
The native whalers of Chukotka have a long list of worries.
They worry that many of the gray whales they eat are poisoned, just not poisoned enough to smell foul. They worry that the gray whale die-off will lead the International Whaling Commission to reduce their subsistence quota, or ban their hunt altogether. And they worry about defenders of animal rights who would love to see that happen.
Anti-whaling activists are fond of quoting the great-granddaughter of Geronimo, who delivered a message to a gathering of tribes on Orcas Island in 1998. She said, "There is an ancient prophecy that states, "Peace will come to humans when we make peace with the whales and hear their song.'"
But the native hunters of Chukotka say they don't have time for peace and whale songs. They're too busy trying to put blubber on the table.
Without a survival suit -- and the hunters of Chukotka have none -- a man has only minutes to live in the freezing seas between Siberia and Alaska. "There have been many tragedies," says Zelensky. "Men go in the water. Sometimes they are saved in time, sometimes not."
But fewer men die now than before. With each season, the revival hunters of Chukotka grow wiser, more organized, and better equipped. This coming summer, with nine years of experience beneath their parkas, they will go on the water in sturdy boats with new outboard motors, outfitted with two-way radios, binoculars, navigation devices, and modern, explosive-tipped harpoons.
The first few seasons were chaos by comparison.
The hunters went out in poorly constructed crafts scavenged from defunct state farms. Their weapons were a motley, inadequate array. One enterprising band found an anti-tank gun left behind by a decommissioned Soviet infantry division, positioned it atop a bluff overlooking a narrow strait, and blasted away at passing whales, Guns of Navarone style. Other whalers returned to the ghost villages on the coast and foraged in garbage heaps for discarded harpoons.
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.
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 last 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 Corp. 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 activism 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."
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 motorboats and coordinating their maneuvers over CB radios. That's hardly traditional."
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 heavily 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.
It could be all of the above.
The best clues to this mystery may be hidden in the meat of the fresh specimens the hunters of Chukotka bring to shore this summer.
"A good question is why did we decide to study these hunted whales only now, once a crisis is upon us?" says O'Hara. "We are not as clever as we may think."
Last month in Barrow, Alaska, a delegation of whalers and native activists from Chukotka attended an annual meeting of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.
Among the agenda items were strategy meetings in which the Chukotka hunters were coached in how to prepare for next year's International Whaling Commission convention. There, while anti-whaling protesters gnash their teeth outside the meeting hall, a company of native hunters far from home will ask for permission to kill more gray whales.
(According to the IWC's own Scientific Committee, the stock of Eastern Pacific gray whales could lose 482 whales a year and still increase in population by 2 percent annually.)
Thomas Napageak, chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, officially welcomed the Chukotka hunters to Barrow: "You have come a long way, and we will continue to support you if you need us at any time. We would like to go to your blanket toss one of these days."
As the meeting proceeded, Barrow whaling captain Ron Brower -- grandson of the legendary Yankee whaler Charlie Brower, who settled in Barrow in the 1890s -- huddled in a workshop with his young nephews, finishing a batch of 30 darting guns he had spent the last month crafting.
Back in the community room of Barrow's Inupiat Heritage Center, Vladimir Etylin thanked the assemblage of Alaskan whalers for this latest gift.
"Now that we are receiving 30 new darting guns, almost all of our whaling boats that need a weapon will have one. ... Our hopes for next season's harvest are very good. We believe that for the first time, we may harvest the maximum number of gray whales we are allowed by the IWC, which will prepare us to make a new quota request in 2002.
"We understand that the only way to obtain a satisfactory quota in 2002 is to keep working together with our friends in America.
"Finally, we know time is moving forward, and we need to change generations. We need our young people to move forward. This is why I am pleased to say that my daughter, Olga, will be coming soon to Barrow to work in the AEWC office to learn better how to organize and how to protect our culture."
That night, as he waited for dancers from Chukotka and Barrow to perform a celebration of the previous summer's hunting, Etylin acknowledged that there are millions of people in the world who believe his culture -- one based on killing whales -- is not worth protecting.
"We try to understand these people, but we cannot," he says. "What would happen if we started telling French people it is disgusting to eat frogs, and they must stop, because it is violating the rights of the frogs? We would be laughed at. But people say, "Oh, you cannot hunt the whale, because the whale is magical,' and they are taken seriously. It is not right. These people who work against us, they come from rich countries. They have everything. They should just leave us alone."
That's not likely to happen.
While indigenous people around the world are fighting to revive lost traditions, environmentalists are still fighting to save the whale. The two sides are on opposite banks of a cultural chasm, yet both claim the moral high ground. Until one yields, the issue of native people killing whales in the name of their culture -- to say nothing of filling their bellies -- will stay steeped in scorching controversy.
"Whaling is a waste of sentient life," says the Breach campaign's David Smith. "Whales are highly evolved mammals. They have the right to be treated with compassion by all people everywhere. You cannot simply excuse the massacre of such beings by playing the "cultural values' card."
Smith does allow an exception for indigenous people faced with imminent starvation. "But in such cases, the rest of the world has a moral imperative to supply those people with food and work with them hand-in-hand to stop the slaughter."
No thanks, says Etylin.
"We want to feed ourselves. Hunting whales is what gives us pride. It is what reminds us of who we are."