Tag Archives: bowhead

Remembering Basque Whaling in North America

One of the most important North American archaeological sites related to whaling can be found in Red Bay, Labrador, in Canada. Red Bay was the largest and most important of several locations along the Labrador coast at which Basque whalers set up whaling stations to render the blubber from the whales they caught, beginning in the 1500s.  These whalers sailed across from the Bay of Biscay in their galleons to North America, to hunt baleen whales. The oil from these whales would then be sailed back to Europe for use as lamp fuel, soaps and other products. This phase of whaling under sail lasted until the early 1600s.

In recent years, the bones left behind by the Basque whalers have been examined by researchers, primarily Moira Brown and Brenna McLeod, to determine which species were hunted. It had been assumed that the targeted species were North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). The DNA extracted from these bones led to the identification of 21 distinct individuals, 20 of which were bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus), the larger cousin of right whales.  The three species of right whale and the bowhead comprise the Balaenidae, one of the four families of baleen whales. This discovery has initiated some revisiting of the assumptions of the population numbers of North Atlantic right whales prior to the hunting that occurred between 1500-1935. Perhaps this species was never as populous as first imagined.

The Red Bay site has been nominated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. You can learn more about the site in this Global Travel Industry News article or Labrador Coastal Drive. For some first hand insight into some of the research done in 2004, search online for “Log of the Rosita – Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution”, written by former NBWM Trustee Dr. Michael Moore from WHOI.


Bowhead whale skull at Ilisagvik College, Barrow, AK. Photo by Robert Rocha, NBWM.

Inupiat and Alaska Delegation Prepare for Battle at IWC Meeting

Bowhead Scrimshaw Carving. From Whaling Museum Kendall Collection

One of the benefits of having shared a U.S. Department of Education grant with the Inupiat of Alaska’s North Slope, was the exchange of cultural knowledge and practices.  Speaking only for myself, I learned a great deal about life in Barrow, both from working on projects together and by visiting the town. One thing became quite clear. It really is necessary to hunt for your protein.

If you want meat, you need to get it yourself, or hope that someone in your family will do the harvesting. This includes wide assortment of food that comes from catching what my host in Barrow called ‘the mighty bowhead’. They eat the skin, blubber, muscle, kidney, heart, intestines and tongue. The hunt provides nourishment and continues a centuries long tradition. There may be modern technology used, but the result is the same – a bounty of food celebrated by the whole town, and shared by the captain of the crew who caught the whale.

The whalers along the North Slope have often had to wage political battles within the International Whaling Commission to maintain their subsistence whaling quota, a quota that lasts for a five year span. That battle may have to take place again in July, during the IWC meeting in Panama.  As a backup plan, Alaska’s congressional delegation has introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would enable the U.S. Secretary of Commerce to set the subsistence quota, if IWC members do not.  The two previous votes on this topic, in 2002 and 2007, required some political maneuvering to get the majority vote in favor of the hunt. This is a wise use of the stipulation written into the 1946 International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, which allows for such a move if the IWC doesn’t set the quota.

If you’re curious as to why they don’t just go to the store to buy their meat, check out this article about the cost of food in Barrow.

Barrow’s Mayor Responds to NY Times Article

Edward Itta, the current mayor of Barrow, AK, and captain of a whaling crew, has responded in the Alaska Dispatch to the story posted a week ago in the New York Times. A blog on that story was posted here on October 19.

Residents of Barrow are sensitive to how their culture is portrayed, especially if that portrayal is going to be the only information those readers will ever receive. The depiction also has the potential to have an impact when subsistence hunting quotas are brought up for review with the IWC.

Inupiat Whaling

Point Barrow, Alaska, watercolor painting by Sophie E. Porter, 1895-1896, from the NBWM's Kendall Collection

New Bedford’s renewed relationship with Barrow, AK, fostered both through the National Park Service and through the ECHO (Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations) program, brought their traditional whale hunts back into our local consciousness. An article in the New York Times from Monday, features a video and a reference to New Bedford whaling tools still being used in Barrow.

The story is also a reminder that effects of climate change are more quickly and easily seen in the planet’s polar regions. Shrinking polar ice caps are changing the way the hunt is conducted. What is not mentioned is that a shorter ice season leads to longer periods of open water that can be pushed by the wind to increase coastal erosion, another issue facing Barrow residents.

Subsistence Hunting Under Review

BALAENA COMUNE lithograph, by Rispoli / Petraroja, from NBWM Kendall Collection


Last Tuesday’s blog began with a reference to the commonly asked question (at least here at the NBWM) “Who’s hunting whales now?”. That blog talked a bit about one country involved in commercial hunting. Today’s answer to that question focuses on subsistence hunting and an article from the Alaska Dispatch.

It’s time for the NOAA/NMFS review of the bowhead whale population in the Bering, Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas (western Arctic). This will determine the maximum number of whales that can be harvested by the Inupiat.

Based on commentary coming out of Iceland, it is likely they will dispute or perhaps vote against the subsistence hunt at the next International Whaling Commission meeting. Japan did this in 2002.

Learning from Whales and Whalers on Top of the World

Much like the buffalo were an integral part of the lives of Plains Indians, bowhead whales are inseparable from the lives of the Inupiat of the North Slope of Alaska.   An older resident of Barrow once told me that approximately 75% of their activity over the course of a year is related to whaling.  Whether it’s prepping seal skins for umiaks, cooking, cleaning, hunting, readying gear for camping on the ice or feeding family or neighbors, their lives are connected to the bowhead.  They believe that these animals offer themselves to the people to ensure their survival.

One of the transplants to Barrow, research biologist Craig George, has spent 30 years learning from the Inupiat and from the bowhead.  Craig and his colleague, Leslie Pierce, are contributors the NBWM’s new The Hunt for Knowledge exhibit. More importantly, they’ve helped legitimize the centuries of traditional Inupiat knowledge that was typically ignored or demeaned by academics and agency scientists.

It’s my pleasure to link you to Ned Rozell’s quick-read article about Craig and Leslie, Learning from Whales and Whalers on Top of the World .  You’ll be impressed by the amount of research he’s done, and stunned by the bowhead facts listed in the story.

Craig George, left, and Leslie Pierce look for bowhead whales north of Barrow.