Learning from whales and whalers
on top of the world
By NED ROZELL
June 17, 2010
Off Point Barrow - "We're a long ways offshore," Craig
George says. "The water beneath us is about 180 feet deep."
In late May, a chilly breeze cuts from the west as we stand on
a platform of bluish white sea ice. "The Perch," a
whale-watching tower located on a snowmachine cul de sac at the
top of North America, is a small castle made of ice chunks and
an impressive amount of labor. George, fellow biologist Leslie
Pierce and I are at the ragged edge of sea ice that clings to
the northern coast. Eiders, sea ducks almost as large as geese,
bark in the cool air above the open water a few hundred yards
ahead of us; the first loons to arrive this far north zip by
on their way to summer.
Craig George, left,
and Leslie Pierce look for bowhead whales north of Barrow.
George, a biologist with the North Slope Borough, located the
Perch here so he and other biologists could count bowhead whales
as they arc over the continent while migrating from the Chukchi
to Beaufort seas. He and Pierce are pulling a four-hour watch
from the Perch for the final time in a spring season during which
Barrow whaling teams have harvested 14 bowhead whales.
Bowheads are magnificent creatures
that may reach 100 tons and spend their long lives in cold northern
waters. As discovered by George and others, some bowheads swimming
by today may have also been passing this point when Thomas Jefferson
slept in the White House.
Few people know as much about
Balaena mysticetus as Craig George. He migrated to Barrow in
the late 1970s and has studied the creatures since 1980, a time
when scientists knew little about bowheads. The animals are so
important for northern indigenous cultures that people evolved
around using bowhead bodies for food, bowhead oil to light their
lamps and bowhead bones to build shelters from the cold and constant
George - tanned, solid and
rugged as a walrus - recently completed his doctorate at the
University of Alaska Fairbanks. With his 168-page thesis, he
has condensed three decades of accompanying Inupiat hunters while
they harvested whales and has refined his experiences into insights
on bowhead biology. Here are a few highlights, among many:
- Bowheads can go without eating
for more than one year (1,000 times longer than a mouse).
- Bowheads can live to 200 years
old in part because the whales evolved in cold water without
much food. "These stressors may have led to slow growth,
delayed maturity and subsequently extended longevity to ensure
reproductive success," George wrote.
- So efficient is the bowhead's
foot of blubber insulation that bowhead skin temperatures are
about equal to the surrounding frigid ocean, while their internal
temperature remains about 33.7 degrees Celsius (92.7 degrees
- Bowheads have an incredible
system for shedding excess heat that involves the flukes of the
tail, the roof of the mouth and a bowhead's pickup truck-size
tongue. "The body temperatures for pursued whales . . .
were not elevated. In fact, the lowest temperature was for the
whale pursued (by whale hunters) the longest," George wrote.
Biologists Leslie Pierce
and Craig George search for
migrating whales on an ice perch north of Barrow.
Back on the Perch, it is a slow day for bowhead watching. Curtains
of fog open and close above the open water through which the
bowheads are swimming. George, Pierce and another watcher saw
18 whales yesterday, along with a polar bear that padded within
a few dozen feet of the Perch before wandering off. We see neither
whales nor bears at the Perch today (though the bears will appear
for us later at a pile of whale bones near Point Barrow).
After deciding to dismantle
the canvas windbreak material from around the Perch, George scribbles
the day's result in his notebook. On ice steps sprinkled with
gravel to enhance grip, George and Pierce descend from the Perch
for the final time in 2010 (they often complete the spring whale
count in late May). Soon, the sea ice that supports it will melt,
and that impressive structure will vanish.
In a few hours, George will
return to his office north of Barrow and enter his data from
another year of routing snowmachine trails through sea ice, building
towers from ice blocks, shooing off polar bears and standing
in greasy boots alongside village whaling captains as they process
their catch. For all his knowledge on bowhead whales, George
in his thesis wrote that he would have learned much less without
the people whose ancestors were hunting the whales right here
when Jesus Christ was still walking the planet.
"The Eskimo whale hunters,
captains and crews deserve great credit - perhaps singular credit
- as without their support this research would have been impossible.
They supported me in the field, fed me maktak (blubber), offered
ideas and supported the Department's seemingly esoteric research
for 30 years. They taught me more whale biology than I will ever
This column is provided
as a public service by the Geophysical
University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF
Ned Rozell [firstname.lastname@example.org]
is a science writer at the institute.
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