Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Icescapes

Ball and Pyramid, Chukchi Sea, Alaska: This icescape, photographed with a Nikon D90 and a Sigma Bigma 50 – 500 mm lens, has been slightly processed to increase contrasts. The operative word here is “slightly.” Even to the naked eye, these frozen-sea icescapes are other-worldly.

Evocative, perhaps, of a scene from Star Trek, winter hikers venture across the frozen ocean out to a whaling camp. The gun the lead person is carrying is for protection. Although we saw no sign of polar bears on this day, friends of ours who took a slightly different path encountered fresh tracks.

Seal-skin boat at the ready, these men stand vigile for bowhead and beluga whales. Note the light blue block of ice they’ve cut out and positioned near their gear as a shield. These men are standing on sea ice just a few feet from the open sea. Last year was a good year for whaling in Point Hope, with three bowhead whales harvested. The hunt is dependent on the right ice conditions, which can be elusive. So far this year, no whales have been taken.

A well-equipped wall tent, complete with a supply of propane, serves as one of several whaling camps near the village. These camps are set up on sea ice, and may be anywhere from a few hundred yards to several miles offshore. The hunters travel out to leads – areas where the ice is open. Winds and currents can open and close leads quickly, underscoring the need for whaling crews to be constantly alert.

Sea ice seem to be lit from within by blue light. Heaved up in pressure ridges and broken into fragments weighing several tons, it is easy to appreciate the arduous work “breaking trail” entails as hunters go out onto the ice to set up camps. 

A black and white composition heightens the contrasts in these massive blocks of broken ice.

There’s a sense of being somewhere other than Earth…

And then a flock of common murres skims across a lead…

15 thoughts on “Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Icescapes

    • Thanks, Jennifer. We’re always so happy to hear from you! This morning, it looked like you guys are having some nice weather down there, or at least over in San Francisco. Sunny up here, too. 28 degrees! Warm!

  1. Pingback: What I’ve Been Reading: April 24th | amandatheatheist

  2. There is no humane way to kill a whale. Today we know whales and dolphins are higher beings. Sometimes these whales suffer for up to 5 hours after being harpooned. Isn’t it time we stop letting the word “tradition” be an excuse for doing something so wrong. Please stop murdering the people of the sea! You are obviously wearing store bought clothes and shoes. Surely you can see your way clear of murdering our ocean friends.

    • Hi Kristen,
      Thanks for writing. We’re sure you can appreciate that whaling, like similar issues, is very complicated. And while we’re not sure what store-bought clothes have to do with the subject, here’s our view:
      Humans are overpopulating this world, and unless that changes, whether or not a few scattered groups of people go whaling is trivial. Currently on the North Slope of Alaska, about 20 bowhead whales a year are harvested, a sustainable number; the bowhead whale population in this area is increasing at an average rate of about 3% per year.
      The single factor most limiting cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) populations is not human hunting, but human overharvesting of ocean resources cetaceans directly or indirectly depend on for food. There is also the matter of increasing toxicity in the world’s oceans due, largely, to the sea of plastics and other pollutants discarded into it each year. Both the overharvesting of sea resources and toxic levels of pollution are direct consequenses of human overpopulation, and there does not appear to be a technology-based or diet-change-based solution to these problems. More people mean more resource depletion and more environmental toxicity.
      While we share your objection to the needless suffering of any animal, we urge you to take a broad view. Animals dying a slow death from starvation or because their bodies are riddled with disease caused by human-produced toxins suffer a great deal more than the few being harvested for food. Eliminate the whale harvest in these villages? Then food will have to be shipped in from elsewhere. Clear another forest, plant another crop, drill another oil well to fuel the trucks and planes shipping this food.
      We always appreciate opportunities to discuss these complex issues.

  3. I agree that the landscapes do look other worldly. So beautiful. Thank you for sharing, and for your well articulated reply to Kirsten. The added challenge to “store bought” food is the purchaser has to have an income. Typically for northern peoples that involves resource based employment. Something is going to suffer, somewhere.

  4. Barbra & Jack –

    I wonder if you’d be interested in our highlighting some of your fabulous blog posts on alaskapublic.org’s community blog – townsquare49.org. Our goal is to bring more attention to interesting Alaska stories – and you two definitely have some here!
    Thanks! Travis Gilmour

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