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The Bowhead Whale

Bowhead Whale copyright Stan Klos

My life with the Eskimo
By Vilhjálmur Stefánsson and Rudolph Martin Anderson 1922
Edited Stanley L. Klos 1999

The Bowhead Whale, the largest animal of the Arctic regions, if not directly the most important animal, on account of being the chief means of support of a number of Eskimo communities, has, through the large fleets of vessels engaged in the whaling industry, indirectly been the most responsible agent for bringing the white man's civilization into the western Arctic, with its concomitant effects upon population and fauna. Although whaling had long been prosecuted in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean west of Point Barrow, the first ship wintered at Herschel Island in 1889-1890. Later other ships wintered at Baillie Island, Langton Bay, Cape Parry, and two small schooners even wintered as far east as Victoria Island. Whaling was prosecuted independently by Eskimos from Cape Prince of Wales, Point Hope, to Cape Smyth and Point Barrow, Alaska, and east of the Mackenzie, at Warren Point, Baillie Islands, Langton Bay, and other points, before the advent of white men. The Eskimos were accustomed to pursue the whale from their skin-covered umiaks and kill them with stone-headed lances, valuing the whale for its meat and blubber and not for the "whalebone" or baleen. Nowadays there is no Eskimo whaling east of Point Barrow, and the western Eskimos use modern weapons. The whaling industry by white men has become practically dead within the past few years. One ship and one gasoline schooner, the only vessels which whaled in the Beaufort Sea, killed twelve whales apiece during the summer of 1912, but the voyages were considered unprofitable on account of the unsaleability of bone. The largest number of ships which wintered at Herschel Island at one time was fourteen in 1893-1894. The largest catches are said to have been 69 whales by Captain Smith in the Narwhal, 1893-1895; 67 whales by Captain Norwood in the Balcena in 18931895, and 64 whales by Captain Bodfish in the Beluga in a two-year voyage about the same time. At that time whales were frequently killed near Herschel Island and Baillie Islands, but now they are much less seldom seen inshore. A good many Bowhead Whales are killed in the spring by the Siberian natives at their whaling stations at Indian Point, Plover Bay, and East Cape. Whalers -say that in the spring the Bowheads do not follow the Siberian coast farther than East Cape, but strike across from there to Point Hope, Alaska, and follow up the American coast around Point Barrow, passing Point Barrow, going to the eastward from about April 20th to June 1st. After the Bowheads pass Point Barrow in April and May, little is known of their movements. Whalers are apt to be met with anywhere in Amundsen Gulf in July and August, as early as ships can get out of winter quarters. Whales are sometimes seen spouting offshore in Franklin Bay early in June. In August, in the region between Cape Parry and Banks Island, the whales usually seem to be coming south along the west side of Banks Island, and going west, although they often are seen in Franklin Bay until September. Following them up, the whalers usually find whales most abundant on the "offshore" or "pea-soup grounds" off Capes Dalhousie and Brown, where the water is rather shoal, eighteen to thirty fathoms. The whales often remain here for some time and if scared away, soon come back. Whales killed here sometimes have mud on their backs as if they had been rolling on a mud bottom, i.e., whales which are killed without sinking. A dead whale which sinks to the bottom often brings up mud as a matter of course. Bowheads have been chased into fresh water three fathoms deep near Pullen Islands, off the mouth of the Mackenzie River. No parasites are found on Bowhead Whales, like the barnacles and "lice" found on Right Whales and Humpbacks.



The method of Bowhead whaling is to cruise about under sail, keeping a sharp lookout from the masthead during the whole twentyfour hours. Bowhead Whales are very easily frightened and are very seldom if ever seen from a steamship while the propellor is working. Furthermore, after a whale is struck by a bomb, it is extremely infrequent for another whale to be seen in the same vicinity for an hour or more, even though there may have been many in sight before. When a whale is " raised," the ship lowers all its available whale-boats. Each boat usually has a ship's officer as boat header in the stern-sheets, a boat-steerer (harpooner) in the bow, and a crew of four oarsmen. A whale usually stays below the surface for a regular period, from twenty minutes to an hour or more, according to his individual peculiarity. When up, the whale moves slowly along, the top of back just above the water, sometimes just below, making a wake, every minute or two blowing up a white column of vapor to a height of from eight to twelve feet. After spouting several times the whale usually "turns flukes," raises his tail out of water, and dives down. After two or three risings, the boat-header can usually tell the rate of speed at which the whale is traveling, the direction of his course, and the time he is apt to stay below. The boat heads for the place of his probable reappearance, keeping a little to windward if possible. AYhen the whale spouts again, the boat-header tries to run the boat directly across the top of the whale's head, the most favorable chance. As the boat passes over, the boat-steerer (harpooner) in the bow thrusts one or two tonnite (or sometimes black-powder) bombs into the whale's neck with the darting-gun. The darting-gun is a heavy lance-shaft with set-gun at tip. When the point of the harpoon enters, a stiff parallel wire explodes the eight-gauge cartridge which shoots the bomb into the whale. The handle is immediately disengaged, the barbed harpoon-head remaining in the wound, and attached to the lance-warp (rope), of which ten fathoms are kept in a box in the bow and one hundred or more fathoms in a tub in the boat. Sometimes a shoulder-gun is used after the darting-gun, if opportunity offers. The shoulder-gun is a heavy eight-bore, shooting a long feathered tonnite bomb with no warp attached. If struck fairly in the neck vertebrae, a whale is sometimes killed instantly with one shot, but sometimes eight or ten shots are required. The whale often tows a boat a long distance if only slightly wounded, and is sometimes lost by going under a large ice-field. As soon as the whale is " struck " by one boat, the other boats come up as soon as possible, and as the whale rises he is struck as often as possible. On small ships the whalebone baleen from the upper jaw is sometimes cut off in the water, but on the larger ships the upper portion of the whale's skull is cut off and hoisted on deck entire, and the bone removed later. Ordinarily the practice of the Bowhead whalers in recent years has been to remove only the baleen, turning the carcass with its fifty or more barrels of oil, adrift. This is a most wasteful practice, but when "bone" was high in price, a single whale might be worth $10,000 in bone, and the captains preferred not to spend a day saving a thousand dollars' worth of oil, and perhaps lose a possible second whale. The meat of the Bowhead is good, the young whale's flesh in particular being much like beef. The "blackskin," or muk-tok, as it is called by the Eskimo, is considered a great delicacy, being usually eaten raw by the Eskimo, and boiled fresh or pickled by the white whalers. At Point Barrow, Alaska, the "floe-whaling" is done principally in Eskimo skin-umiaks, and the whalebone is cut out at the edge of the floe. A male which I saw killed August 23d, 1910, in Franklin Bay, was about 57 feet long, flukes 18 feet 4 inches across, and right fin or flipper 10 feet 4 inches around outer curvature. The whale yielded 2100 pounds of whalebone, the longest slabs (from middle of jaw) being about 11 feet in length. Delphinapterus catodon (Linn.).


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