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Rural Alaska

Utqiagvik whalers still hope to land a bowhead as season wanes

Nuiqsut and Kaktovik whalers landed bowheads in late August and early September, which is typical for the region.

The iconic whale bone arch is photographed on Sept. 23, 2015, in Utqiagvik. (Erik Hill / ADN)

UTQIAGVIK -- The start of November has come and gone, and still, Utqiaġvik whalers have no bowheads to show for the season.

“Last year, I killed my whale on the 29th of October. That’s a week and a half ago. But, also, that was one of the last whales killed. So, we were done whaling by the 29th last year,” said captain Chucky Hopson. "I’ve never gone into November whaling and not one whale has been landed yet — not that I remember.”

The fall whaling season is a critical time for crews across the North Slope that rely on their catches to put away food for the winter.

Nuiqsut and Kaktovik whalers landed bowheads in late August and early September, which is typical for the region. The whales usually make their way over to Utqiaġvik next, with the strongest whaling happening in late September and early October.

But this year, September passed and October passed, and while Utqiaġvik crews have seen some whales near town, they weren’t able to land one.

“When we first started the season, we were going out every day in the dark. We’d take off in the dark and come home in the dark. In September, we were doing 14-hour days in the water, looking for whales. We weren’t really spotting any. I mean, some people were, but we were chasing pretty much whales with no blows. We weren’t seeing the blows at all,” Hopson said. "We were seeing the whales once or twice.”

Biologists track the annual patterns of the bowhead migration and have been doing so for four decades, through the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals program.

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“We have 40 years of perspective to look at this problem from,” said biologist Megan Ferguson.

Since 2012, the typical pattern for bowheads shows them being the farthest offshore in July. Then, starting in August, they come a bit closer to shore. In September, they travel near the coastline by Kaktovik and Cross Island, in line with the start of the whaling season. They continue that trajectory through October, giving the more western communities — like Utqiaġvik — a chance to hunt.

Their aerial surveys this September and October, however, show the bowheads aren’t where they usually are. On maps depicting areas that have typically held the greatest concentration of bowheads, this year they just aren’t there in the same numbers.

“We’re seeing a pattern in the bowhead whale distribution near Utqiaġvik that we haven’t seen for the past three decades,” Ferguson said. "So, that’s surprising. That’s not something we would have predicted based on what we saw in July and August and we don’t really have a concrete explanation for why we’re seeing that.”

The crews’ observations on the water are in line with the surveys.

“The first couple weeks in the season, we really went out there hard, doing 12- or 14-hour days in the water. Now, as the season is coming to a close, it’s just from daylight. It’s getting near the end to where we can’t go out anymore,” said Hopson. "With all those days, just my crew alone has burned well over 1,000 gallons of fuel without seeing much of anything. So, we’re to the point where I’m going to sit back and wait and go with other crews until we start seeing whales and that’s when I’ll go out with my crew.”

It’s taken a toll on the whaling captains and their crews. As Hopson said, it’s expensive to go out on the water in search of a catch. Gallons of fuel add up, as does the cost of food for all the crew members. There’s also the emotional strain of the time and energy it takes to do the hunt.

"Between work and time with my family and whaling it’s getting pretty stressful being gone all the time, missing work and all of that,” said Hopson. "It’s really starting to take effect.”

Like others in town, Hopson, his family and crew are more than willing to make the sacrifices they need to in order to provide for their community. That’s what takes them out on the water year after year. But when the whales aren’t coming in, it becomes a balancing act of how much crews can afford.

Ferguson said there aren’t any concrete answers yet about where the bowheads have gone and why.

“These bowhead whales, typically during their autumn migration, after they pass through the Beaufort Sea, they head over to Russia where there’s better feeding and then they head south down along the Russian coast,” she said.

Observers did see bowheads near Chukotka as early as September this year, so it’s possible they’re just taking a more northern route to get there, past where whalers typically venture out to find them.

“Some of the ideas are that the bowheads might have stayed in Canada a little longer than usual. So, what we saw in September and October were some whales that left early and they just weren’t taking the normal path,” Ferguson said. "Or it could be that whales left at their normal time but they’re just traveling much farther north than they usually do. I think there’s evidence to support both of those things.”

Like many Utqiaġvik residents who spend time on the water, Hopson said he’s worried about the changing ocean conditions and the effect that may have had on the bowheads this year.

“One of the differences was the water temperature. It stayed warmer longer. That was one of the big things I noticed was it was warmer,” he said. “I believe the whales are staying in that colder-temperature water and they’re just in a different area right now. I’m hoping they’re working their way this way because I want to be able to bring one home and give it out to the people.”

Ferguson said biologists and oceanographers are looking into what’s happening below the surface to find out if that is playing a role in the whales’ unusual patterns this year. Researchers are considering water temperature and bowheads’ food sources, but there are no solid answers yet.

While researchers try to piece together what’s happening with this year’s bowhead migration, whaling crews in Utqiaġvik are keeping their eyes on the water, hoping for a final chance to land at least one bowhead and provide for the people.

"I’m not ready to call it yet,” said Hopson. "I’m going to keep going until I can’t no more.”

Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at sgoarctic@gmail.com.