I thought that seeing polar bears was going to be the highlight of my trip to the Arctic. And it was. But the universe had another once-in-a-lifetime experience in store for me.
The Arctic village of Kaktovik is a community of about 70 families, 75% of which are Inupiat Eskimo. They are subsistence hunters, which means they rely on hunting for their survival. Whale hunting is regulated here, but the community is legally allowed to harvest three bowhead whales each year, which become their main protein source for the winter. The whale season begins on Labor Day, when a team of eight boats heads out to the Beaufort Sea with the goal of harpooning a whale. Sometimes, it takes as long as two weeks to catch a whale.
And guess what happened on my second day in Kaktovik? Yep, they caught their first whale of the season. I was on a boat with my guide, watching bears loafing, when the boat radio started crackling with excitement."They got one!" my guide proudly announced to me.
The whale is attached to the boats and floats behind them (below) as they bring it to shore. It took them most of the day and into the night to bring the whale in and get it onto the beach. The stuff that looks like feathers is the baleen, attached to its jaw bone and used for scooping plankton and krill.
It was an extraordinary sight. On the one hand, it was sad to see such a magnificent creature lying lifeless on the beach. On the other hand, it's not a blood sport for them; it's not like the Arctic has cattle they could slaughter for hamburger (which would be a more socially acceptable form of animal slaughter).
The dozen or so of us visitors who were on the island that day got conflicting information about our presence during the event. When I asked if I could watch and/or take pictures, two different boat guides told me it was no problem, as long as I didn't get in the way of the butchering activities. So I did get some good shots of the event. But other visitors were told they were not allowed to take pictures, and at one point one woman told all visitors they had to leave the beach and could only watch from across the road.
Their "no pictures" rule is not because they have an objection to picture-taking itself. Most of the Inupiat locals had their cell phones (and a few iPads) out and were snapping pictures themselves. (Yes, even in a remote Arctic village, everyone now has a cell phone). I suspect it had more to do with a fear of calling attention to their activities to groups like PETA, who no doubt would be highly offended by the activity.
Being vehemently anti-PETA myself (in their "I disagree with you, so I'll destroy you," tactics, they are no better than a terrorist group, as far as I'm concerned), so I don't ever want anything of mine to be exploited to further PETA's cause. So I've opted not to post any pictures of the haul-in or butchering. There is already a great slide show of the event here, if you are interested, it is almost identical to what I saw. (Be sure to click on the arrow on the right side of the first picture, to go through the whole slide show). A Google image search also reveals thousands of images.
After the whale is hauled ashore, the meat is cut up and divided up among all the families in the community. The bony carcass is moved to the farthest end of the island, to what has become known as the Bone Pile. Kaktovik is famous for its Bone Pile because the fresh meat attracts a lot of bears, and is the first place guides take visitors. Below, some scenes from the Bone Pile. (There were no prohibitions against picture-taking here). These pictures were taken the day before this year's whale catch, so these bones are from previous whale hunts.