At the Time of Whaling

Gambell, Alaska is a Yupik-speaking community on St. Lawrence Island on the Bering Sea. Here, as on the coast, sea mammals are still the major source of food. During their three-week Spring migration through the Bering Channel, whales are hunted using a combination of traditional organization and recently introduced technology such as motors and darting guns. A bowhead whale weighs about one ton per foot, and may reach seventy feet in length. Working together, even fifteen Eskimo skin boats with up to ten persons on each boat cannot assure a safe venture or the taking of a whale.

From a rooftop several men with binoculars view the sea ice for open water and other signs of migrating whales. Conditions are good as the men hoist their sails. Someone spots a whale and shouts the news through the CB radio, and the other boats drop sail, rev up their motors, and join the first boat. Together the fifteen boats capture the whale and tow it to the shore ice, where the men begin the three-day task of butchering and distributing the meat to the crew and to another village on the island. An old man recounts the way whaling used to be.