A Native Whaler's View

Whale CaptainEskimo hunters at Barrow, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik, Alaska are concerned that cumulative effects of offshore activities, especially seismic exploration, may have displaced fall migrating bowhead whales thereby affecting their subsistence hunt. In March of 1997, MMS sponsored a workshop at llisagvik College in Barrow, Alaska, to discuss whaling and offshore oil and gas activities. Whaling Captains and crew from Barrow and the villages of Nuiqsut and Kaktovik, along with experts from the scientific community, regulatory agencies and industry attended the workshop.

Whaling captain Burton "Atqaan" Rexford provided MMS with this testimony on what it means to be a subsistence hunter and whaling captain.

My name is Burton "Atqaan" Rexford. I was born in 1930 at Pt. Barrow "Nuvuk", Alaska and now reside in Barrow, Alaska. I am a whaling captain and the Chairman of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC), which is made up of ten subsistence villages: Gambell, Little Diomede, Barrow, Nuiqsut and Kaktovik.

This testimony is from my actual experience as a subsistence hunter and a whaling captain. As a whaling captain, I am responsible for feeding my community and for the safety of my crew. For my people, the greatest honor is to be a whaling captain, but it is also the greatest responsibility. You must consider many things to become a whaling captain because once you do, the community will depend on you and you cannot let your family and your community down.

As a Commissioner to the AEWC and the Chairman of the AEWC, I am responsible for making sure that ten villages are fed and that 150 to 160 crews are able to hunt as safely as possible. This is a very great honor and responsibility. All of our villages look to the AEWC to protect the bowhead and our subsistence hunt. My honor and dignity as a Whaling Captain are of the utmost importance to my peers and colleagues in the Barrow Whaling Captains Association and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Without honor and dignity, a whaling captain loses face with the whaling community and loses respect and prestige one attains through many years of involvement as a member of the whaling community.

Like many other Eskimo whaling captains, it is with great care and much thought that I submit my factual findings from actual experiences. Throughout my 53 years of whaling in villages ranging from Pt. Hope, Barrow and Pt. Barrow "Nuvuk", I have personally, like many other whalers, observed the impact of noise interference on bowhead whales. In the spring, when we hunt in the ice leads, we must use the umiaq, made of bearded seal skin. The umiaq is light to carry when you travel to the ice edge and it is silent in the water. You cannot use an aluminum boat in the ice leads because the sound of the water on the side of the boat will scare the bowhead whale. You must paddle silently in the water because the sound of the paddle in the water will scare the bowhead. You must wear white parkas on the ice because if you don=t the whales will see you when they surface. These are only some of the things that a whaler must know. There are many other things, but the most important is to respect the whale and its home.

The bowhead has been called the "ice whale" because it travels through the ice. The Eskimo have been called "the people of the ice whale" because without the bowhead we would not exist.

The bowhead is our brother. Our elders tell us that the whales present themselves to us so that we may continue to live. If we dishonor our brother or disturb his home, he will not come to us anymore.

The bowhead hunt is very dangerous. We must use our small boats in very rough and icy waters. In order to strike the whale you must be very close. You must be right on top of the whale because we use the hand-held harpoon with the darting gun attached.

In the fall, the water is too rough for the umiaqs and we do not have the ice leads like in the spring, so we hunt from small boats with outboard motors. Most of our boats are eighteen footers. There are some twenty footers and a few twenty-four footers. Most of these are open boats. Some of the larger ones have canopies and a few of the large ones have a cabin.

The average crew size is three people. A lot of the smaller boats can use only two crew members. The smaller boats are easier to maneuver in the ice and very few people can afford to buy a big boat. So most crews use what's called a modified eighteen footer. We use plywood to build up the sides of the boat about twelve inches to help keep the boat from being swamped in the big swells. Once you get very far offshore, the swells can get to be pretty big C three to six feet or more feet. This can swamp a small boat.

In the fall, the weather is very unpredictable and you can't get local weather forecasts. The forecasts usually come in from Fairbanks. The winds also are very unpredictable. We don't go out if the wind is over fifteen knots. The west wind can come up suddenly and the crews get caught if they are very far from shore. If the wind does not get over twenty knots, we can still navigate, but more than twenty knots we can't navigate. We have to hunt near shore because of the heavy seas, and the wind. If you go too far out, you have much less chance of getting your catch home.

The ocean offshore of Cross Island is a much more difficult hunting area than where the Barrow whalers hunt. The area of water they hunt in is less salt-free, and therefore, the young ice (slush ice) forms overnight when the temperatures are below freezing. They have to go through this young ice to get to the open water to hunt for the bowhead whale. The crews have to navigate through drifting icebergs also, which moves along with the current. During fall whaling, there is about 12 hours of daylight to do hunting. Usually whaling crews head out at about 6:00 am and continue hunting until dusk, which is about 7:00 pm.

When you are towing a whale and it gets dark, you have to rely on a compass to find your way to the shore for harvesting the whale. Towing a whale that measures between 35-50 feet long takes about 10 hours to tow the whale a distance of 25 miles. The meat starts to spoil anywhere between 12-24 hours after the whale is caught, depending on the size of the whale. It takes about 12 hours to travel 30 miles north of Cross Island, where the Nuiqsut whalers have had to go to scout for whales and tow the whale back to shore, where the meat begins to spoil. The winds can change rapidly where you are out hunting and/or towing a whale when high winds can gust up to 25 knots, increasing the swells of the waves making it extremely dangerous for swamping boats. The pack ice can move in unexpectedly closing the waters.

Like many boys of the village of Barrow, my observation of sea mammals began at any early age of 6 years old. My grandparents (David Ergayak and Salomi Kounularuak) were the last residents of Pt. Barrow "Nuvuk", Alaska. My aunt (Mary Saganna) and I would hunt daily for food such as snipes along the beach shore line of Pt. Barrow "Nuvuk", Alaska. Often we would observe the fall migration of belugas and bowhead whales about twenty five yards from the beach shore line.

I was 10 years of age when my father introduced me to the spring migration whale hunt at Barrow, Alaska. We did not have dog teams to assist us in transporting our whaling equipment, and necessary supplies. The results are very clear. Manual horse power (Eskimo labor) was used in pulling our equipment over the ice pressure ridges. Since 1940, I have been an active whaling crew member and captain. In 1943, I was one of the crew members to whaling captain, Anthony Kipuqaurak Webber of Pt. Hope, Alaska during the spring migration bowhead whale hunt. Since 1950, I have been an active participant in the fall migration hunt of the bowhead whale.

During the years 1943 through 1948, while a resident of Kotzebue, Alaska, during each summer after winter ice breakup, I would observe beluga whales localize ten to fifteen yards from the beach shoreline. Direct migration contact with beluga and bowhead whales has been a continual behavior observed by me.

In 1948, I returned to Barrow, Alaska. I did not waste valuable time. I made crew member to whaling captain, Mr. William Enugruak Leavitt, Sr., the son of the yankee whaling ship captain, Mr. George Leavitt, Sr.

Since time immemorial, Pt. Barrow "Nuvuk", Alaska has always been both a staging area and strategic location for Eskimos' fall bowhead whale hunt. The Eskimo elder bowhead whalers have clearly identified these localization of the bowhead whales' natural habitat and feeding areas and are described as follows.

  • Pt.Barrow "Nuvuk"
  • Eluitquak
  • Taupkaluk Island
  • Cooper Island
  • Martin Island, and East beyond Martin Island

These are the barrier islands where the Barrow whalers go in the fall to look for the bowhead whale. From one to ten miles offshore of these barrier islands the bowheads mill and feed. You always see a lot of bowheads here as long as there is no industry.

Burton "Atqann" Rexford
Born 1930, Died 1999