UTQIAĠVIK – Watching how bowhead whales move underwater is a tricky task.
You’ll need to place a tag on the smooth skin of large animals that only briefly surface. The connection is too low, the satellite connection is weak. Get too close to it, and the whale will startle and disappear into the sea.
Scientists have used air guns, but often with poor results. But they say things improved dramatically when they turned to someone whose knowledge of bowhead whales spanned generations: hunters in northern Alaska.
“You have to learn how to chase that animal,” hunter Billy Adams said. The boat needs to follow the whale, keeping its distance from the footprint left by the whale’s tail moving up and down. “If you touch that footprint, it’s like sticking a needle. … It can startle the whale, and then you lose the whale.”
Using traditional hunting knowledge and tools, North Slope whalers and scientists will collaborate to tag bowhead whales in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas this August and September. It’s an example of a long-standing collaboration: From hunters sharing how whales move and behave with biologists, to hunter wives sharing their observations of animals ready to eat, Inupiaq experts have been informing whale research for decades.
“Project Bowhead owes the locals. They shared their knowledge,” said Craig George, a retired senior wildlife biologist with the North Slope Borough Wildlife Service. “We would never have been able to complete the ice-based census without the help of senior captains and whaling crews who teach us about whale biology, whale behavior, where and when to count, and how to work safely on ice.”
The collaboration between whalers and scientists began in the late 1970s, when biologists estimated there were fewer than 1,000 bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukotka-Beaufort population, and the International Whaling Commission suspended next year’s whaling in 1977 Activity.
Bad science has led to huge panic in Alaska’s coastal communities, Adams said. After tense negotiations, the United States called for a special meeting later that year to revise the quota from zero to 12 landed right whales.
“People who have lived in these communities for thousands of years know that there are far greater numbers of animals,” Adams said.
In response to these limitations, Inuppet whalers formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and provided a new method for estimating bowhead whale populations. They suggest scientists use hydrophone arrays to locate whale calls and use aerial surveys to track whales farther from shore.
“They know that whales travel under the ice and communicate by sound — talking to each other,” Adams said. “There are also some whales that can’t be seen further away.”
George, who came to the North Slope during the suspension, said the number was up 40 to 50 percent. More than three decades later, the number of bowhead whales in 2011 was estimated at around 17,000. Hunters, as well as Indigenous experts from the Wildlife Department, continue to work with local and international biologists to study migratory behaviour, anatomy and noise-impacted projects and seismic activity.
“In terms of contributions to biology, hunters have made a huge contribution,” George said.
Hunters form their knowledge and update their theories based on what they see, and they discuss their observations with each other to arrive at mutually agreed statements, George said.
“They act like scientists. They question your results. Some of the sharpest criticisms we get in our work are here.”
[From 2018: Bowhead whales, dwellers of icy seas, enjoy steady growth off Alaska in the age of climate change]
Bow head anatomy
As George waited for the whale with the hunters on the ice, he noticed that the hunters made sure to shut down any burning around the camp. They said they needed to keep smoke away from open water and whales. Scientists at the time thought bowhead fish had no olfactory “hardware” and therefore couldn’t smell.
The dilemma baffled George and Hans Tevison, a Dutch-American anatomist and paleontologist who often traveled to Alaska from Ohio to study whales. Equipped with a hammer and chisel, Thewissen looked at the bowhead skull and found an olfactory bulb the size of a little finger — “just not where you’d expect it to be,” he said.
“It’s a real indication of Aboriginal knowledge that the Inupiats didn’t have anatomical knowledge, but they were actually right,” Thewissen said.
George said the whale’s head held spiritual significance to the Inuit. Traditionally, whalers released the skulls into the ocean to return the animal’s soul to the water. But whalers also want to learn more about the smell of bowhead fish and donate their skulls to research.
Likewise, several Inuit hunters allowed Thewissen to study another bone of ritual value: the layered part of a whale’s ear.
“It’s like the growth rings: Every year, the whale adds a layer of bone to this ear bone,” Thewissen said. “It’s kind of cool because you can count the layers and then you know the age of the whale.”
The relatively round, fist-sized bones — known as drum bones or suti in Inupiaq — are also items that captains typically remove from whales to remind them of the hunt. They display them at home, sometimes inscribed with the date the whale was caught. In some cases, Thewissen said, the captain even asked for the bones to be buried. Nonetheless, a hunter agreed to give one of the ear bones to Thewissen for study.
“Lewis (Braugher) said, ‘Wow, this is so cool! Like, can you tell me how old my whale is?'” Tverson said. Scientists cut a slice from the bone to count the layers, then filled a cavity in the bone with plastic and returned it to the whaler, writing down the age of his whale. “Then the other hunters said, ‘Hey, can you figure out how old my whale is?’
“It’s an opportunity for these Inuit hunters to learn more about this animal they respect,” Thewissen said.
Whale hunter Bernadette Adams said she likes to ask scientists about whale anatomy and hear their straightforward, clear answers, such as when they tell her the animal has more than one stomach and show her which part of the body.
“So it’s like they learn the most from us,” she said, “but we also learn from them.”
Field Health Specialist
Contributions to science are often a family affair for whaling families, said Raphaela Stimmelmayr, a wildlife veterinarian and research biologist at the Wildlife Department.
“My closest colleagues are actually our hunters and hunters’ wives,” Stimmelmayr said. “Whatever they’re looking at, I know they’ve actually seen it.”
A few years ago, one of the women was working on a right whale’s kidney when she discovered the part had festered and shared her observations with Stimmelmayr. The scientist dissected a 50-pound kidney, found kidney worms and began investigating the source of the problem. She also communicated with residents that they may wish to avoid eating bowhead kidneys for now.
“It’s always two parts: the hunter has an incredible look at the animal before killing it,” Stimmelmayr said. “The next group is the wife, the woman who’s handling it, the woman who’s cooking, who has a very clear understanding of it. Woman. How should it smell? How should it feel?
“You have experts on the ground,” she said, “and because they keep practicing, it’s an old knowledge that keeps breathing new life.”
listen to whale song
Bowhead whales have been studied extensively over the years, but the animals’ behavior and migration patterns change as their habitat changes — just as the oceans are freed from ice for longer.
To continue to monitor whale activity closely, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, along with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and the Barrow Whaling Captains Association, are preparing for another tagging operation this fall. Scientists are still working to unravel several mysteries of whale behavior, George said.
Can bowhead fish see boats when underwater or when they surface? Why do animals rarely get cancer? What allows them to live to be 200 years old? How do they find krill to eat? Why do bowhead whales sing?
Whaling captain Herman Ahsoak said hunters had been listening to whale songs by sticking their oars into the water and putting their ears on the other end – “just to watch, just to hear the whales first sound.” This knowledge is critical for acoustic approaches to whale populations.
“When they got close, they were breathing very loudly,” Asoke said.
“It sounds like the jungle outside,” George agreed. “These are the greatest singers on earth.”
In George’s house, it’s all about whaling: the whalebone in front of the entrance, the baleen above the door, the whale photos on the living room walls and the stacks of whale science books on the shelves and side tables. Excited, George walked to the next room with his computer and audio equipment and played a few recordings of whale songs.
“Pause, he starts singing the same phrase,” George said, playing a melancholy recording. He listened quietly. Then he switches to a song that sounds like an eagle screeching: “It’s nothing like what you just heard.”
The reason why bowheads sing is a mystery to hunters and scientists alike. The animals may be trying to let other whales know where open water is, Asoke said. Passing on information about the food supply and requesting mating are other explanations offered by George.
“But I think we’re all scratching our heads,” George said. “The hunters would ask, ‘Why are they singing like that? Why are they calling? And, you know, we ask them the same question.”
The animals bring people together during harvest and sharing, but they also connect communities of scientists and whalers who want to better understand bowhead behavior, George said.
“They say the whale has dedicated itself to a worthy hunter,” George said. “Well, it’s also a gift to science.”
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