UTQIAĠVIK – Observing how bowhead whales move underwater is a challenging task.
You need to mark the smooth skin of a huge animal that only briefly rises to the surface. Connect it too low, and the satellite connection is poor. Approach him very clearly, and the whale will startle and disappear into the sea.
Scientists once used air guns, often with ineffective results. But things improved dramatically, they said, when they sought help from people whose knowledge of bow whales spans generations: fishermen in northern Alaska.
“You should be able to learn how to hunt this animal,” said hunter Billy Adams. The boat needs to track the whale, keeping its distance from the footprint caused by the whale’s tail moving up and down. “If you touch that imprint, it’s like stitching a needle. … It can stun the whale, and then you’ll lose the whale.”
Using traditional fishing knowledge and tools, North Slope whalers and scientists will collaborate to tag bowhead whales in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in August and September. It’s one example of a longstanding collaboration: from fishermen who share with biologists how whales move and behave, to fishermen’s wives who share their observations about the animals they prepare to eat, Inupiaq experts have been informing whale research for decades.
“Locals deserve credit for the Bowhead programme. They shared their knowledge,” said Craig George, retired chief wildlife biologist with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management. They teach us about whale biology, whale behavior, where and when to count, and how to work safely on the ice.”
The partnership between whalers and scientists began in the late 1970s when biologists estimated there were fewer than 1,000 bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock, and in 1977 the International Whaling Commission instituted a whaling moratorium for the following year.
Adams said poor science has led to great anxiety in Alaska’s coastal communities. After intense negotiations, the United States requested a special meeting later in the same year at which the quota was revised from zero to 12 bowhead whales.
“People who have lived in these societies for thousands of years have known that the numbers of animals were much greater,” Adams said.
In response to these limitations, Inupiat whalers formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and introduced a new approach to estimating the arched population. Scientists recommend using spike arrays to locate whale calls and aerial surveys to track whales offshore.
“They knew the whales were going under the ice and across the ice and communicating with sound — talking to each other,” Adams said. “And there were whales not seen far.”
George, who came to North Slope during the moratorium, said the number rose 40% to 50%. More than three decades later, the head whale population was estimated to be around 17,000 in 2011. Hunters, as well as indigenous experts in wildlife management, continue to work alongside local and international biologists on projects that research migration behaviour, anatomy, the impact of noise and seismic activity. .
“In terms of the contribution to biology, hunters have made an enormous contribution,” said George.
George said, hunters form their knowledge and update their theories based on what they see, and discuss their observations with each other to arrive at mutually agreed data.
“They act like scientists. They question your results. Some of the harsh criticism we’ve had for our work has been here.”
[From 2018: Bowhead whales, dwellers of icy seas, enjoy steady growth off Alaska in the age of climate change]
When George spent time with fishermen on the ice waiting for the whales, he noticed that the fishermen made sure to seal off any burning around the campsites. They said they needed to keep fumes out of open water and whales. Scientists at the time believed that arched heads do not have olfactory “organs” and therefore do not smell them.
This dilemma baffled George as well as Dutch-American anatomist and paleontologist Hans Thewiesen, who regularly came to Alaska from Ohio to research whales. Equipped with a hammer and chisel, Twissen examined the bowhead skull and found olfactory bulbs the size of a small finger — “just not where you’d expect them to be,” he said.
“This was a real indication of Aboriginal knowledge as the Inupians had no anatomical knowledge, but they were actually right,” said Thewiessen.
George said that the head of a whale has a spiritual meaning for the Inupia people. Traditionally, whalers released the skull into the ocean to allow the animal’s soul to return to the water. But the whalers also wanted to learn more about how arched heads smell and donated the skulls for research.
In the same way, many Inupiat hunters allowed Thewissen to study another bone of ceremonial value: the layered part of a whale’s ear.
“It’s like tree rings: Every year, the whale adds a layer of bone to this ear bone,” said Thewiessen. “That’s kind of cool because you can calculate those layers and then you’ll know how old a whale is.”
The relatively round bone about the size of a fist – called the tympanic bone, or siuti in Iñupiaq – is also an object that captains usually take from a whale to remind them to hunt. They display it at home, sometimes even engraved with the date of whale hunting. In some cases, captains request that they be buried with these bones, Twissen said. However, the hunter agreed to give one of the ear bones to Thewissen for research.
“Louis (Brewer) was like, ‘Wow, that’s kind of cool! Like, can you tell me how old my whale was? Thewissen said. The scientist cut off a slice of bone to count the layers, then filled a cavity in the bone with plastic and returned it to the whaler with a writing about the age of the whale. Then the other hunters said, ‘Hey, can you tell how old my whale is? “
“It’s an opportunity for these Inupiat hunters to learn more about this animal they respect,” said Thewissen.
Whaler Bernadette Adams said she loved asking scientists about whale anatomy and hearing their straightforward answers like when they told her the animal had more than one stomach and showed her that part of the body.
“So it’s like they learned the most from us, but we also learn from them,” she said.
Health experts on earth
Contributing to science is often a family affair in whaling families, said Rafaella Stemmelmayer, a wildlife veterinarian and research biologist in the Department of Wildlife.
“My closest colleagues are actually the wives of hunters and fishermen,” said Stemmelmeyer. “Whatever they notice, I know they really looked at it.”
A few years ago, a woman was treating the kidneys of a bowhead whale, saw the part had worsened and shared the observation with Stemmelmeyer. The scientist dissected 50 pounds of kidneys, came across kidney worms and began investigating the root of the problem. She also told residents that they might want to avoid taking arched kidneys for a while.
“It’s always two pieces: There’s the hunter who has incredible observations of the animal before it is killed,” said Stemmelmeyer. “The next group out there are the wives, the women who process it, the women who cook, the women who have a very clear understanding. How are you supposed to smell? How are you supposed to feel?”
“You have experts on Earth,” she said, “and because they are constantly practicing, it is ancient knowledge that is constantly permeated with new life.”
Listen to whale songs
Bowhead whales have been intensively studied over the years, but the animals’ behavior and migration patterns change with shifts in their habitat – such as the ocean remaining unconstrained by ice longer.
To continue to look closely at whale movements, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game together with the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Barrow Whaling Captains Association are preparing for another tagging exercise this fall. George said that scientists are also working to unravel many mysteries about whale behavior.
Do you see bow-tipped boats when they are underwater or when they are surfacing? Why do animals rarely get cancer? What allows them to live up to 200 years? How do they find krill to eat? Why do bowhead whales sing?
The fishermen would listen to whale songs by sticking their oars in the water and putting their ears on another end—“just to pay attention, just to try to hear the whale first,” whaling captain Hermann Ahsuak said. This knowledge is essential to the acoustic method of counting whales.
“Their breaths are really noisy when they get close,” Ahsok said.
“It’s like a jungle outside,” George agreed. “These are the greatest singers on earth.”
In George’s house, it’s all about whaling: whalebone before the entrance, baleen above the door, pictures of whales on the walls in the living room and stacks of whale-science books on shelves and side tables. Excited, George walked into the next room with a computer and audio equipment and played several recordings of whale songs.
“Pause, and begins to sing the same phrase,” George said while playing a melodic, melancholy recording. He went quietly to listen to her. Then he moved on to a song that sounded like a piercing eagle’s cry: “It’s so different from what I just heard.”
The reasons for bow-headed singing are a mystery to both hunters and scientists. Ahsouk said the animals might be trying to let other whales know where some of the open waters are. The transmission of information about the availability of food and the invitation to mate are other explanations offered by George.
“But I think we’re all scratching our heads,” George said. Hunters ask, ‘Why do they sing like that? Why are they calling? And, you know, we ask them the same thing.”
George said the animals bring people together while harvesting and sharing, but they also connect communities of scientists and whalers who want to better understand bowhead behavior.
“They say the whale offers itself to a worthy fisherman,” said George. “Well, it was kind of a gift to science, too.”
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