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.
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 1/2 tons of rage, and rams the boat headfirst.
The impact rocks the boat like a bathtub toy slapped by a big mean brother. On board 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.
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.
Zelensky's first two shots kick up spurts of water. He keeps firing, leading the buoys with his aim.
A monstrous shadow rises from the milky green depths. Barnacles, sea lice, and scars from past combat with killer whales glow white against the gray skin of the giant.
The whale cuts the surface like a torpedo. He is now within 30 feet of the boat.
Pop! Pop! Pop!
Three bullets slam into the whale's head and neck, erupting blood. He dives, then surfaces beneath the boat, his back and tail jacking the rear of the craft into the air at a sick angle. Bodies, backpacks, and weapons tumble the length of the deck, ricocheting off bulwarks and railings. After a terrible moment, gravity makes a correction, and the upended boat slams down with a spine-crunching splash. [page]
Soaring on adrenaline, Zelensky snaps a fresh clip into his Kalishnikov and bellows at the men in the cabin to get the damned motor going. Out in the water, directly behind the boat this time, the buoys are again coming around. Finally, the men in the cabin yank the slumped-over pilot clear of the engine. One of them punches the throttle, cueing the sweet song of the motor's roar.
The trawler makes a slow getaway. Designed to drag fishing nets, the powerful but ponderous craft's primary purpose in whale hunting is to haul dead whales back to shore. This seems a bit ironic — not to mention presumptuous — given that the injured whale is now chasing it. And gaining.
“More! More!” Zelensky yells. The driver red-lines the engine. The fishing boat lunges forward. The whale falls back but keeps coming.
Zelensky barks orders into a CB radio, calling in a diversion, which arrives within seconds. The pilots of two tiny one-man boats the hunters call “mosquitoes” bravely zigzag their paddleboat-size crafts in front of the whale. It works. The whale breaks off his pursuit of the larger boat to charge one of the mosquitoes. Then he hesitates, changes direction, and goes after the other. Engines whining, the mosquitoes zip off to either side and out of range.
Winded, the whale rests on the surface, exhaling in labored bursts through his dual blowholes. He can't see the two skiffs creeping up behind him. In a scene repeated thousands of times over thousands of years in these icy waters, the hunters standing in their bows raise harpoons and prepare to strike.
At daybreak, hours before they would join the whale in a fight to the death, the hunters were beckoned from their beds by the ghostly light of a cold dawn in Lavrentiya, a village of 1,700 on the coast of Chukotka, the former Soviet Union's most brutal and far-flung frontier.
Garbed in a bizarre amalgam of reindeer and seal skin hunting suits, military surplus camouflage, and Nike windbreakers over counterfeit Calvin Klein sweat shirts, the two dozen hunters gathered in Lavrentiya's central square beneath a crumbling bust of Lenin.
The obsolete icon is a malignant memento. Under communism, the people of Chukotka were centralized and subsidized, forced to work on state-run fox farms and re-educated to live on what they were provided instead of what they provided themselves. When the Soviet Union collapsed, they were suddenly cut off the supply lines, 10,000 people, casualties of the Cold War, abandoned in one of the least merciful environments on Earth.
A peninsula of arctic badlands at the extreme northeastern tip of Siberia, Chukotka reaches toward the West like a dying man's hand. Point blank off its coast, the Arctic and Pacific oceans collide, spinning storms that rip through the land like shrapnel. Frostbite amputees are now so common in Chukotka that the region's new millionaire governor, Roman Abramovich, personally paid earlier this month to fly more than 200 of them by helicopter and 747 to a hospital in Khabarovsk, the closest major city, to be fitted with prosthetic hands and feet. Considered a savior by his constituents, Abramovich also funded emergency shipments of flour and heating oil that arrived by tanker this summer in even the most remote villages on Chukotka's coast. Heir to the largest oil fortune in Russia, Abramovich has assigned himself the protector of a destitute nether region.
Chukotka is a place where it is possible in the winter to slowly starve to death while watching Dukes of Hazzard reruns dubbed in Russian and broadcast from Moscow, 3,700 miles away. It is a place where vodka is cheaper and more available than canned food, and where Eskimo children missing arms use bleached whalebones as ramps for their Hot Wheels cars. It is where substandard Soviet construction typified by tar paper and tin shacks offers scant protection from the winter gales that shriek up the steep cliffs and over the frozen tundra, whipping the snow into cyclones that peel the paint from buildings and flash-freeze exposed skin in five seconds or less. The last three winters in Chukotka have been freakishly cold, frequently shoving the wind-chill factor to triple digits below zero. Hundreds have perished. The prevailing sense among the people now is that if they can just hold on through one more winter, Abramovich will somehow make everything better. But their young governor's millions can't buy off the cycling of the seasons.
Winter is coming.
Crunching gravel underfoot, the whalers of Lavrentiya march a quarter-mile through desolate streets before reaching the shoreline. There they smoke cigarettes and load rifles before setting out in their ragged armada to find and slay a gray whale. Big game doesn't come any bigger or smarter, and sportsmen of the Hemingway persuasion would no doubt pay a lot for the thrill of shooting one from a small boat in the Bering Strait. But the thrill isn't for sale, and the hunters of Chukotka don't kill whales for sport, just as, after the Soviet Union fell, they didn't pick up their harpoons again under the banner of ceremony and preserving their traditional culture. They resumed hunting gray whales simply to survive in a land where for the past 5,000 years the most cherished cultural tradition has been outliving the winter.
Recognizing their peril, the International Whaling Commission licenses the Eskimos of Chukotka to kill 135 grays per year out of a population of roughly 26,000.
“Whale hunting for us is not about keeping alive some romantic ideas of the past. It is about keeping our people alive in the present,” says Vladimir Etylin, chairman of the Association of Traditional Marine Mammal Hunters of Chukotka. “Without whale hunting, famine is a real possibility in a place such as this.” [page]
The coastal dwellers of Chukotka eat all they can hunt or gather — berries, salmon, seals, mushrooms, walrus, ducks, puffin eggs — but the mainstays of their diet, and therefore the pillars of their slender existence, are gray whale meat and blubber. Which is why the rising specter of chemical contamination in gray whales has them so frightened.
The fear took root in the summer of 1998, when the first rash of contaminated leviathans the people came to call “stinky whales” hit villages up and down the coast of Chukotka. One in 10 whales slain that year came with a nasty surprise. When hunters brought them to shore, villagers would surround the bodies of the giants as usual, eager for their shares. The whales appeared normal. But when they were gutted, a burning chemical stench roiled from their innards, and the crowds recoiled. The meat, fat, and organs of the stinky whales were so badly tainted people left them to rot, their precious sustenance wasted.
The phenomenon reoccurred in 1999, and again in 2000. “Especially last year was bad, even more smelly whales, and everybody is growing more concerned, because nobody knows what this smell of medicine is all about,” says Mikhail Zelensky, mayor of Lavrentiya and founder of the Naukan Production Cooperative, a veteran organization of whale hunters. “Scientists have been explaining to us it is some kind of pollutant in the ocean, but no one knows if there is a human health concern, because no one knows what is the exact chemical composition.”
The apparent chemical contamination of the grays occurred at the same time that the whales washed ashore, dead, in unprecedented numbers along their migration route. Researchers continue to document a significant decline in the birth rate of this recently endangered species.
This summer, while the hunters of Chukotka were taking on gray whales in the Bering Strait, the International Whaling Commission was holding its annual convention in London.
The issue of gray whale contamination was not exactly a hot agenda item. In fact, it was given passing mention only once in five days of general sessions. For the second year in a row, IWC commissioners expressed concern, suggested there should be more study of the matter, and then let it drop.
According to a report of the IWC's scientific subcommittee meeting on gray whales — which was closed to the public, including the media — one of the Russian Federation's delegates led his fellow commissioners to believe there is no cause for alarm because the whales that reek of medicine have simply disappeared.
“No stinky whales have been encountered this year,” he is recorded as stating.
But the hunters of Chukotka know that's not true. Stinky whales have been encountered this year, by the dozens. They just haven't been killed.
“Some whales, you can smell the toxins on their breath,” says Igor Macotrik, a hunting captain from the village of Novoe Chaplino. “We have learned to let those whales go.”
What's more, the only researcher on the ground in Chukotka says he knows what's making the stinky whales stink. “It's phenol,” says veterinarian Gennady Zelensky, head of the Chukotka Science Support Group and the son of Lavrentiya whaling captain Mikhail Zelensky.
Phenol, also known as carbolic acid, is a highly toxic industrial solvent that smells distinctly like disinfectant. It is used and dumped in vast quantities throughout Siberia by oil refineries and diamond mines, in natural gas exploration and extraction plants, and a host of other heavy industries that operate in the former Soviet Union's far eastern hinterlands with little oversight and nowhere to safely dispose of toxic industrial waste.
Last summer, Zelensky participated in a study of phenol contamination in the salmon, sturgeon, and whitefish of the great Amur River in eastern Siberia. For several years, the fishermen who ply the Amur have complained that their catches are dwindling and that many of the fish in their nets disgorge a chemical smell when cut open. Every fall, when the brown water of the Amur begins to freeze, an eye-watering medicinal reek sets in along with the ice. The fishermen describe the smell as like the inside of a drugstore or health clinic.
Tests showed the fish of the Amur are heavily contaminated with phenol. That was no surprise, as the Amur is loaded with phenol, same as most of the major rivers that flow through the Russian Far East.
“But here is the interesting thing,” says Gennady Zelensky. “The Amur stinky fish had the same odor as the smelly whales.”
Zelensky says in August he tested for phenol in the blubber and livers of five freshly killed gray whales in Chukotka. Though none of them were stinky whales, all five tested positive for the solvent.
“One of our goals is to access and take samples from these bad-smelling whales, because we believe they probably represent the worst contamination in the population, and so will give us the best, most clear results,” says Zelensky. But until mid-September, when the first stinky whale of this year was killed by hunters from the village of Lorino, researchers weren't able to meet that goal, because the hunters of Chukotka have developed a crude but effective test of their own.
“Before you strike with the harpoon, you wait close until it breathes, then you smell the mist. If it is clean, you strike,” says Maxin Agnagisyak, a harpooner from Novoe Chaplino. But if the mist has the telltale taint of bad medicine, the hunters back off.
This summer, whale hunters from four different villages in Chukotka all estimated that between one in 10 and one in 15 of the gray whales they come across carries the stink.
They believe that their smell test is protecting their people from ingesting contaminants. But if Zelensky is right, and the stinky whales represent only the most extreme levels of contamination, sniffing the whales' breath could be providing a false sense of security. [page]
“My methods are preliminary only,” says Zelensky. “Nothing is for sure until the samples are tested in American laboratory.”
But that requires the samples to make it out of Chukotka. And thus far, Russian officials don't seem to share Zelensky's enthusiasm for scientific inquiry.
For their part, the Eskimos of Alaska kept their promise from last winter to help their Siberian brothers. Enriched by the millions they charge oil companies to drill on their land, the American Inuit have long sought to protect the integrity of the whales they eat. With this in mind, they keep one of the world's leading experts on marine mammal contamination, Dr. Todd O'Hara, in their employ. In August, he was scheduled to arrive in Chukotka to pick up the samples from 16 whales taken by Zelensky's science group and bring them back to the U.S. for testing in a National Marine Fisheries Service lab.
But at the last minute, the Russian Border Service ordered O'Hara's Coast Guard ship, the Polar Sea, to steer clear of Russian Federation waters. O'Hara's boat was forced to return to the United States without the tainted whale samples.
“It was unfortunate, because I was going to bring back all the samples Gennady had collected,” says O'Hara. “Now we're having to go through the murky bureaucratic channels over there, and we won't be able to get all the import permits in place until probably November. It's holding us up.”
It is impossible to say with certainty whether turning back the Polar Sea was merely a display of feathers by the Russian Border Service, or part of a more sinister policy to avert the world's eyes from the role Russian industries play in ocean pollution. Chukotka's border guards are still led by cronies of the region's ex-governor, Alexsandr Nazarov, who barricaded doors to the west with red tape as a matter of routine. But the Border Service's blockade, combined with the Russian government's downplaying of the contamination at the IWC conference in London, seems to mean the villagers of Chukotka are on their own.
For now, the samples that may contain all the answers are sitting in a freezer in Zelensky's Lavrentiya office.
“If there are toxins in the whales, then there are toxins in us,” says Igor Macotrik. “We have many people in our villages getting sick with cancer, and we don't know why. We have whales that smell like toxins, and we don't know why. But when people are hungry, they know why, and they will eat the whales. We are afraid of the toxins, yes, but there is no choice. We must eat whales. You see, it is a kind of trap.”
After five hours of unsuccessful hunting, the whalers of Lavrentiya were enjoying a breakfast of fermented seal and walrus meat, gray whale blubber, salmon eggs on bread, and hot tea. They sat amidst the ruins of Nunyamo, an ancient island village atop high cliffs whose residents were forced to relocate by the Soviet government in the 1950s. As they ate, the hunters scanned the sea through binoculars, searching for whale signs.
Gray whales feed by diving to the ocean's bottom, repeatedly sucking up mouthfuls of mud, pushing the mud through their baleen to filter out krill, plankton, and mollusks, and then spitting out the residue. Between dives, they rest at the surface for several minutes of deep breathing, exhaling in noisy spouts that rise more than 10 feet in the air and can be heard half a mile away. Though gray whales typically travel in small pods, they congregate in packs of up to 50 when they feed. Hunters find these packs by the glistening arcs of diving whales, the floating plumes of mud whales stir up from the bottom, and the spouts they launch from the surface.
A third round of tea was about to be poured when the hunters spotted a huge pod of feeding whales: dozens of spouts, rising as if they were geysers, less than a mile away. Like a squadron of scrambled fighter pilots, the hunters hustled into their coats and packs, then ran and slid down a treacherous, timeworn path from the top of the cliff to their boats in the cove below. There they hastily cast off ropes, jerked engines to life by their starter cords, and moved out.
Half an hour later, the whale had been speared, had twice attacked Mikhail Zelensky's boat, and was lying amidst the waves, gathering strength, with two harpoon boats sneaking up behind him. At a signal, the pilots of the two boats gunned their engines, and the whale was hit in drive-by harpoonings from both sides at once. He convulsed the water around him into a bloody froth, but did not dive. Dragging eight buoys, he was pinned near the surface.
Zelensky radioed news of the hunt back to a base camp operator in Lavrentiya: “It is a very aggressive whale. It came after our boat, but all is well. Four harpoon strikes have been made. We are readying the darting guns.”
In addition to their traditional harpoons, Chukotka whale hunters carry shotguns, Kalishnikov and SKS assault rifles, and explosive-tipped lances called “darting guns.” Of all these weapons, only darting guns are capable of satisfying the International Whaling Commission's guidelines for “humane killing,” defined as dispatching a whale “without pain, stress or distress perceptible to the animal,” and in five seconds or less. In other words, the makers and minders of international whaling policy want a clean, quick kill. Darting guns — when they function and are wielded correctly — fire an explosive into the bowels of a whale, often killing it a mere four seconds later when the fuse burns down on the black powder charge.
“The high-speed detonation that follows creates tremendous pressure and a shock wave inside the whale's body, and this gives a very devastating, special effect on the nerve tissues in vital organs. It also creates bleeding in the brain,” says Dr. Egil Oen, a Norwegian veterinarian widely regarded as the world's foremost expert on whaling weapons. “If the whale is hit in the right part of the body, it will lose consciousness and die very fast. If not, it will have at least suffered a killing wound.” [page]
Like harpoons, darting guns are hand-thrown. Mikhail Zelensky's hunting team left Lavrentiya with three such guns, each decorated with a sticker of a smiling cartoon whale and the words “Watch responsibly — when you see a spout, look out!” One gun was lost overboard when the whale rammed Zelensky's boat. Another was a dud. It stuck in the whale, but the propellant never triggered. The hunters later said the powder must have been wet. The final gun went off inside the whale but didn't kill him. The gunner hurled the lance from a distance of 10 feet, aiming for a point above the whale's flipper, where the explosive would do the most damage. He missed. The lance pierced the whale's barnacle-encrusted hide about midway between flipper and tail. The propellant fired with the sound of an M-80 going off in a chunk of lard. Seconds later, the black powder bomb exploded inside the whale. He shuddered and began twisting in the water, obviously experiencing a great deal of “pain, stress and distress.”
Out of darting guns, the hunters were forced to shoot the whale to death. It was not clean and quick. For nearly an hour, with Big Diomede Island bearing witness on the horizon, the sea air crackled with gunfire as the hunters endlessly circled the whale, perforating him with more than 200 rifle bullets. Zelensky radioed the same message twice to Lavrentiya. “We are still shooting.”
In May 1999, when the Makah tribe in Washington state resumed ceremonial hunting of gray whales in Neah Bay for the first time in 70 years, it took them only two harpoon strikes and four rifle shots to kill their whale. Elapsed time from the initial harpoon hit to the whale's death was eight minutes. But the Makah had a .577-caliber rifle, the Dirty Harry of big game guns, capable of blowing a hole clean through a gray whale's skull. The whalers of Chukotka make do with military carbines. This means that unless the darting guns do the trick, which only happens in about half the hunts, gray whales killed by the hunters of Chukotka suffer a variation on death of a thousand cuts.
“The bullets hit the whale in the head, along the spine, in the fat protecting the heart, but they do not penetrate. They deflect off the skull or just stick in the blubber, only creating a small wound,” says Oen. “This is why light rifles are banned for hunting minke whales in Norway. And minke whales are smaller than gray whales.”
But Chukotka isn't Norway or Washington. It's the former Soviet Union, and people there aren't allowed to have heavy rifles, because heavy rifles are sniper rifles. So the Naukan Production Cooperative hunters just kept firing and firing, and the whale kept thrashing and bleeding. He died hard. Seventy-five minutes after it was first harpooned, the whale finally stopped moving, ceased breathing, and started to sink. Hunters rushed to grab the ropes tied to the orange buoys before the floats went under. There was no triumph on their faces, only grim relief.
It took the hunters a full hour to heave- ho the whale to the surface, inch by inch. One of the men then carved a cylinder of blubber out of one of the whale's flippers and chopped it up. The men dipped the fresh whale fat in salt and chewed it as they braided the buoy ropes with dozens of additional lines, fashioning a towing system with multiple backups. They worked carefully, checking every knot. In September, a team of hunters from Novoe Chaplino lost the body of a gray whale they had just killed when their towing lines unraveled en route to shore.
Once Zelensky was satisfied the whale was secured, he radioed Lavrentiya. “Tell everyone: We have the whale, and we're coming in.”
There is a mob on the beach, armed with butcher knives. Belching black smoke, a tractor sluggishly hauls the dead whale in from the shallows by a metal cable looped around its tail. The cable snaps. Someone runs to get a thicker cable. The mob rustles with impatience. Word spread through Lavrentiya two hours ago that the hunters had killed a whale, and the villagers quickly congregated on the waterfront. “Spirit in the Sky” blasts from a portable radio tuned to a station out of Nome, Alaska.
Goin' on up to the spirit in the sky. That's where I want to go when I die.
The new cable arrives, and the whale is dragged onto the pebbled shore. A few village elders perform a traditional dance of celebration. An old Eskimo woman burns herbs and an alder branch as another carries out a ritualistic cleansing of the whale's head, washing away the spirits of the sea as well as the blood still oozing from scores of bullet wounds. Wielding a huge curved blade, one of the hunters disembowels the whale. The steaming innards spill out onto the stones. Then the hunter backs away, and it's on. The mob descends upon the whale, blades flashing.
Children stand on the edge of the throng holding plastic buckets their parents hastily fill with steaks and strips of fat. In Lorino, hunters butcher whales in a cordoned-off area and dole out equal portions. But in Lavrentiya, as in most villages in Chukotka, once the whale's on the beach it's a free-for-all. The blades saw and slice. The kids haul away the whale in pieces, then come running back for more. The air is sharpened by the scents of sweat and slaughter. [page]
Researcher Gennady Zelensky braces against the whale's ribs at the fore of the crush, frantically trying to collect and bag scientific samples. “You have to watch your fingers,” he cries to an observer while looking up, grinning, and absolutely not watching his fingers. “Ow!” Zelensky yells, jerking a hand clear. A woman just nicked three of his knuckles. She is wearing a puffy blue jacket spattered with crimson, and she is nudging Zelensky to one side. The woman is going after the whale's liver. But so is Zelensky. His research protocol requires he take pieces of the whale's liver, heart, and kidney as well as muscle tissue and blubber from five different places. He stands his ground, deploying his elbows like a basketball player protecting a rebound.
Zelensky must work fast. In two hours, the whale's carcass will be skeletonized, as if consumed by piranhas.
“My work is a little more difficult because many of the people do not understand what it is I am doing,” he says later. “I try to explain to them, I am helping to make sure their food is safe, but still, no way. When it is time to cut the whale, I am just another guy in there with a knife.”
The Chukotka Science Support Group sampling is the first phase of a study of contaminants in the Eastern North Pacific Stock of gray whales. The study was funded by the National Marine Fisheries Service to investigate the causes and potential human health effects of stinky whales.
In August, a few days after O'Hara and the Coast Guard icebreaker were barred from entering Chukotka to retrieve the gray whale samples, Zelensky said that he had gone ahead and tested for phenol in extra samples he had taken from five whales.
“All of them have it,” he said at the time.
But O'Hara says Zelensky received no instructions or equipment to perform preliminary tests in Chukotka. “That's not part of the study,” he says. Asked to evaluate Zelensky's phenol hypothesis, O'Hara answers, “Well, phenol is volatile and smells like medicine, so we'll certainly be looking for it. But it could be a thousand other chemicals. It's really premature for me to comment. Our priority now is just to get the samples out.”
Last month, Zelensky edged away from the comments he made earlier in the summer. Speaking over the phone from Lavrentiya, Zelensky would not provide more details on his findings. In fact, he denied he had run any tests. He stood by his phenol prediction. But he said it was based only on a recent flurry of studies showing widespread phenol contamination in Siberia's waterways, and on the striking similarity in smell between the phenol-ridden fish of the Amur and the stinky whales of Chukotka.
“Just the smell,” he said. “That is the only evidence.”
Considering the current state of environmental regulation in the former Soviet Union — and especially in Russia's Far East — tracking down the source of any dangerous contaminant in gray whales that feed off the bottom in coastal waters could be like tracking down the source of tarnished coins in a wishing well.
“The situation is quite severe,” says Dr. Vladimir Orlov, the Russian Federation's minister of natural resources. “This is the region [Siberia and the Far East] where our industrial development is the heaviest. Sixty-nine percent of Russian oil exploration is being conducted in this region, along with 78 percent of natural gas exploration, and 90 percent of our natural gas extraction efforts. There is also heavy mining, timber, and other chemical waste-producing activities. Unfortunately, there are no special sites for hazardous-chemical storage in this region that are well-equipped. The very few that are being used may not be assessed as satisfactory.”
The seeds for environmental catastrophe have been planted between the cracks of a failed system. They have been dutifully watered with a witch's brew of industrial poisons. And they are now beginning to bear their venomous fruit.
“You look at the level of chemicals in most of our rivers in Siberia, and it can seem there are more toxins in the rivers than water,” says Mikhail Krykhitin of the Amur Inland Basin Laboratory, an affiliate of the Russian Federation's Pacific Fishery and Oceanography Institute. “Most of the rivers [in the Russian Far East] that we are testing now carry so much phenol they cannot naturally rid themselves of the toxin, so it is just building up and up.”
Krykhitin and a group of scientists from the Siberian Fish Research and Development Institute recently tested for industrial-waste contamination in fish from four different rivers in eastern Siberia. They found that the levels of phenol in the fish ranged between 16 and 70 times the maximum allowable level set by the Russian Federation's Department of Public Health.
None of those rivers empties directly into the Bering Strait, where the gray whales hunted by the natives of Chukotka come to feed every summer, though one, the Amur, flows into the Tatar Strait.
“How could contaminants be reaching the marine life in the Bering Strait? How many ways can you think of? That is how many ways,” says Yuri Shiokov, director of Siberia-ISAR (Institute for Social Action and Renewal), the Far East branch of the leading environmental organization in the former Soviet Union. “Hundreds of rivers flow through the Chukotka peninsula that have never been tested. There are many rivers we know are badly contaminated that empty into the seas on the north coast of Siberia, where the currents hug the coast and funnel directly into the Bering Strait. And we are sure there is massive dumping off of boats, directly into the oceans, including the Bering Sea. We have photographs, but nothing is done. When a nation's economy is in so much trouble as in Russia, the environment is no priority at all compared to industry. This is simple to understand, but we must not accept it.” [page]
“It appears many of the final observations of environmental tragedies in Siberia regions will be recorded in the “living laboratory' of its people and its ecosystems,” continues Shiokov. “They are being used as the unfortunate subjects in uncontrolled experiments.”
In all animals, phenol and other forms of industrial toxic waste routinely dumped in the rivers and seas of Siberia — including PCBs, long ago banned in this country — act as endocrine disrupters, meaning they unleash chaos in hormone systems, greatly decreasing rates of reproduction.
Marine scientists have several years of data showing that the calf count for gray whales is down sharply. Absent research it is impossible to identify a single contaminant or the links between a variety of factors — including a decrease in food supply — that might have caused the drop-off. But the numbers are not ambiguous.
In 1997, researchers counted 1,431 gray whale calves in the birthing grounds of the Eastern North Pacific Stock of gray whales. Last year they counted only 279. This year, according to the most recent numbers, presented to the IWC in July, the final count is expected to be about 250 — meaning the gray whale birth rate has evidently plummeted 83 percent in five years.
The human birth rate in Chukotka has entered a parallel free fall, down more than 60 percent in the last decade. During the same period, birth defects increased by half, according to Dr. Lubov Otrokova, the only Eskimo surgeon in the Russian Federation. In 1997, Dr. Otrokova began documenting cancer cases in Chukotka. She has found that the rate of stomach cancer among villagers in the region has more than tripled in the last 20 years — the last time anyone checked. “In Chukotka cancer is typically not diagnosed until the late stages, when it is too late,” she says. “Among the native people of such an isolated region, you can look at these warning signs and see that clearly, something bad is happening to these people that wasn't a problem for them 50 or 100 years ago. Sadly, no one is studying the causes.”
There has been only one extensive scientific study on the effects of phenol contamination in humans. It showed that in extremely high levels, phenol produces fatal toxic shock, and that prolonged exposure to small doses results in liver and kidney damage, skin lesions, chronic fatigue, birth defects, and cancer.
The study was conducted on Jewish prisoners by SS doctors at Auschwitz.
The Eskimos say it's bad luck to whistle in a boat when you're caught in a storm, but the spirits might spare you if you sing the right song.
Entering hour four of this tempest, whale hunter Ivan Tanko's hoping the spirits are into punk rock, because they hated Kenny Rogers. Three back-to-back renditions of “The Gambler” only made the wicked weather worse.
Tanko's trying to make it home, where tomorrow the villagers will hold a ceremony to mourn the dead. Now he's afraid they'll be mourning him.
Jacques Cousteau once said the seas off Chukotka are the deadliest in the world, and indeed boating along the peninsula's coast is like playing hopscotch in a minefield. This is especially true in the Mechigmen Bay, the greatest and therefore most treacherous expanse of open water the Eskimos of Chukotka regularly brave. In favorable conditions, the crossing takes about three hours in an aluminum skiff powered by a 45-horsepower motor, the region's standard transport. God help you if a storm hits out in the thick of the Mechigmen Bay. There's nowhere to run, and halfway across is the point of no return, past which there's no logic in turning around.
This afternoon, nearly two hours after Tanko and a passenger departed from Lorino southbound for Tanko's home village of Yanrakynnot, the clouds above darkened and boiled as if conjured by an evil sorcerer. Mild chop transmogrified into seesawing 7-foot swells. The look on Tanko's face announced, “We're in a world of hurt.”
Three and a half nerve-grinding hours later, Tanko and his passenger began to sing, teaching each other songs in their native tongues. Tanko speaks about as much English as his passenger does Chukchi, but after a few passes he was able to sound out the opening lines of Iggy Pop's “Search and Destroy”:
I'm a street walkin' cheetah with a heart full of napalm!
Tanko stands in the back of the boat, flashing teeth capped in silver, knuckles white on the outboard's throttle, long, wild gray hair streaming in the gale, eyes hyperalert. Some of the waves he ascends head-on, others he rides sideways. If he takes one the wrong way, the craft will capsize. Tanko's not wearing a life jacket. He needs to move freely, and the water's so cold there's little point. Another torturous hour passes. Night falls. In the darkness, the waves are nearly invisible, rising over the boat like vampire cloaks. Tanko navigates by the foam of their whitecaps. He is singing in his own language now a tune later translated loosely as the “We're about to die song.” And then, a magnificent vision presents itself: the twinkling lights of Yanrakynnot.
According to the oral history of Chukotka, Yanrakynnot [Yan-rah-kay-knot] was founded a long time ago when half of a clan of nomadic reindeer herders who lived in the interior of the peninsula decided to move to the coast, settle in one place, and live as sea hunters instead. Though the clan divided, the stories say, every summer the nomads would bring their herd to the coast, make a camp outside the village, and gather with their kin in Yanrakynnot to trade reindeer meat for whale fat, have a feast, and tell stories of the dead.
Today there is still a place on a hillock overlooking a valley about two miles inland of Yanrakynnot, past the weathered, shuttered remains of a Soviet-era fox farm, where the people of the reindeer and the people of the whale share a burial grounds. It is situated just out of sight of the ocean, where the tundra rolls into forever. It is exposed, and windy, and severely beautiful. The ground is permafrost, so no one buried here is six feet under. The shallow graves are covered with mounds of granite rocks speckled with black and green lichen and marked with wood posts, ribbons, reindeer antlers, and carved whale and walrus bones. Names, dates, and epitaphs are etched into metal plates or polished stones. Many of the mounds are not graves at all but memorials to those lost at sea. [page]
One week every August, the reindeer herders come into Yanrakynnot, and one day during that week, the villagers join them at the burial grounds. There they repair the rock mounds of the newly dead as well as the long gone and tell stories as a reindeer is slaughtered, bread is broken, and vodka flows as freely as tears.
That day this August was the day after Tanko made it through a storm in the Mechigmen Bay. He invited his passenger to the feast, where he pointed out the memorials for dozens who weren't so lucky. All across the rugged hilltop, villagers from Yanrakynnot sat in circles with reindeer herders around boards laden with heaps of reindeer meat, bread, hot sauce, piles of salt, pots of steaming tea, and bottles of vodka. Others stood arm in arm over the graves of loved ones, sprinkling candy across the rocks and toasting the dead with capfuls of vodka tossed into the cold breeze. One man with few teeth and thick glasses knelt alone by the tomb of his brother, repeatedly crossing his arms over his chest, as if to comfort himself, and then thrusting them skyward. Two small children listened to their parents tell them stories of grandparents the little boy and girl never knew. Your mother's mother loved beadwork and cloudberry tea, they hear. Your father's father had the keenest eyes in the village and played the drum while his wife danced. They all died in an October storm, returning from a visit with relatives up north, rushing to get home before the winter shore ice came.
Hearing all the stories, it seemed that no one remembered on the hilltop outside Yanrakynnot died peacefully of natural causes. They plunged through holes in the ice. They fell off cliffs while gathering puffin eggs. They were torn apart by bears. They froze to death in blizzards. They vanished by the boatloads in the Mechigmen Bay.
Sitting cross-legged by one mound, Leonard Kutylin, 52, told the story of watching the five men whose pictures fluttered in the wind beside him die when a gray whale turned the tables. It happened two summers ago. The six hunters left Yanrakynnot in two classic, wide-bottomed, wood-plank whaleboats. They harpooned a ferocious gray in the rough waters of the Senyavin Strait and the whale destroyed them. First it flipped over the harpooners' boat, tossing the three men on it overboard, then whipped around and rammed the empty craft, breaking it into two pieces. The three men in the second whaleboat were desperately trying to fish their friends out of the water when the whale struck from behind, taking out their motor and ripping a hole in their boat's bottom. Powerless, they sank. Kutylin was the only man in the water wearing a traditional hunting suit made of a watertight, insular layer of seal skin blanketed beneath pants and a parka made of furry reindeer hide. He clung to wreckage, and watched helplessly while his friends succumbed to the cold and slipped beneath the waves, one by one. Hours later, a search party miraculously found Kutylin, still holding on, blue-lipped and near death. The whale won that day, and Kutylin hasn't been hunting since.
Kutylin finished his story as he scraped the last bits of reindeer meat off a leg bone with his knife. It is bad form in Chukotka to leave meat on a bone. Animals eaten there are eaten totally. Amidst the burial grounds, a huge metal pot hung by its handle from a tripod erected over a roaring fire. Inside the pot, reindeer fat and flesh, boiled off the bone, bobbed in a thick yellowish stew. The reindeer's heart, liver, kidneys, and intestines baked in coals. The eyeballs, tongue, and lips were broiling on hot rocks. One of the herders scraped the felt off its antlers and held it over the blaze to cook the hair into a crispy finger food. The reindeer's penis was speared on a stick and roasted. Like the whale in Lavrentiya, the reindeer was stripped to its skeleton by nightfall.
The abundance of the feast was deceptive. Last winter, the reindeer herders lost 2,000 of their 3,000 reindeer to cold and wolves. The 400 villagers of Yanrakynnot were in even more desperate straits. At a bare minimum, they need to kill four whales a summer to make it through the next winter. Five whales require less strict rationing. Six and they're well off. By mid-August, with less than two months of hunting to go, Yanrakynnot had no whales. The loss of five hunters two summers ago from such a small population — six, counting Kutylin — is taking a heavy toll, though the villagers believe the dearth of whales is also because of supernatural forces working against them. Over the winter, one of their whaling captains converted to Christianity. This spring he denounced the village's rock-sculpture shrine to gray whales as pagan and destroyed it. The villagers say they are cursed as a result.
“The whales are angry,” says Natasha Ashkamakin, 50, who has lived in Yanrakynnot all her life.
Facing a crisis, the village's elders in August dispatched emissaries to Lorino, Lavrentiya, and Novoe Chaplino to request those villages release a few hunters each to harvest whales for the imperiled village. [page]
Two hunters from Novoe Chaplino — Igor Macotrik and Maxim Agnagisyak — arrived in Yanrakynnot through the same storm that besieged Tanko. The next night, they warmed their bones in the village's wood-heated sauna. These men said the storm's 7-foot waves and the shrieking wind of the gale were bad omens. They suggested that the villagers from Yanrakynnot should rebuild the whaling shrine and make offerings of vodka to the sea. They also agreed to return the following week with more men and boats to help.
“We are always ready to help the people in another village who are in trouble,” said Agnagisyak. “And this village is in trouble. They have no whales. So we will come back and we will try to hunt quickly. If we are lucky, we will be able to harvest enough whales for them to last the winter.”
And if they are not lucky?
Agnagisyak pointed, silently, toward the burial mounds in the hills outside.
Natasha Ashkamakin was optimistic. “I believe they will be successful. We will make it.”
That is what people do in Chukotka. They make it. Last winter, the worst on record in 50 years, Yanrakynnot ran low on gasoline and heating oil. In February, Ashkamakin decided to chance a snow machine run to the nearest village, Novoe Chaplino, to borrow fuel from friends to ferry back to her family across 50 miles of winter-bitten wilderness. She had only a half-tank of gas. She thought it would be enough. It wasn't. “There were too many drifts of snow,” she said. “The wind kept blowing them in front of me, and it took all my gas to power through them.” The snow machine sputtered out 10 miles from Novoe Chaplino. But Ashkamakin made it. She walked the rest of the way.
Her feet froze, and a doctor cut both of them off. At the memorial service, she hobbled around on stumps laced tightly into tennis shoes.
“I think I'm very lucky,” she said. “I'm not beneath the rocks.”